Talking elections at policy conference


ATLANTA (JTA) – Almost everything there is to know about the state of Hillary Clinton’s supporters is there in the cocked head and defiant smile of Audre Rapoport, 84, of Waco, Texas.

“I don’t think she’s dead yet,” Rapoport said with a smidge of sarcasm and satisfaction at a VIP reception honoring her husband, Bernard “B” Rapoport, 90, for his volunteer service to the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella body of 14 national Jewish agencies and 125 community relations councils, at its annual plenum here this week.

While the three-day conference focused on a host of domestic and foreign-policy issues,  in the hallways and at informal gatherings, much of the talk centered on the elections.

Audre and Bernard Rapoport have been “Clinton fans” for decades, she said – it was 1972 when B and Bill helped run the McGovern campaign in Texas.

“The thing about Hillary is she doesn’t let her best side show,” he said. “She and Bill are the best one-two combo since Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were in the lineup.”

His wife agreed, but ultimately, she said through that head-tossing smile: “Anybody but Bush.”

With the approach of the pivotal March 4 primaries, which could crown Barack Obama the Democratic presidential nominee unless Clinton wins both Texas and Ohio, many of the roughly 400 people attending the JCPA conference, a bastion of liberal Democrats even among Jews, grappled with the endgame.

While Obama commands plenty of Jewish support – and most Jews are expected to carry on the tradition of voting Democratic regardless – there was significant talk, given Clinton’s popularity with many Jewish voters, of the possible need for Jewish peacemaking with an Obama presidency.

And in this regard, the key point is Israel – checking and touting his bona fides and rebutting e-mail rumors to the contrary.

At least one Texan said she would support John McCain should Obama win the Democratic nomination, because the Illinois Democrat lacks experience on the “world stage.”

Meanwhile, there are those gearing up to vote who have yet to decide on a candidate.

Political observers say the considerable Jewish population of Ohio could have a critical say in this election.

“My son is in the military so all my options are open,” said Bruce Lev, 54, a developer from Youngstown, Ohio. “McCain scares me” with talk of continuing war. And Obama’s comments about talking to U.S.
enemies, Lev added, could make the U.S. president appear weak.

“So many of my peers can’t make up their minds,” Barbara Rosenthal of Cleveland said, referrring to the over-70 crowd.

A staunch supporter of Clinton, Rosenthal has already cast her vote early. But she expressed concern about the unknown variables of Obama, whether its his stance toward the U.S. judiciary or the Palestinians.

Many Jewish communal officials at the JCPA plenum say that they are fielding questions about Obama, questions triggered by e-mail rumors that falsely state he is a Muslim or receives funds from the Nation of Islam.

“I get tens of e-mails a day saying, ‘Is this true? Is this true?’ And I steer them to the NJDC Web site,” said Marc Stanley, 50, a Dallas attorney, who chairs the National Jewish Democratic Council.

The e-mail rumors have created “a real problem in the Jewish community that we need to fix,” Stanley said. “I have some concerns that his numbers might not be as high as he might like,” he said, adding, “I don’t think the Jewish community is fully there yet for Obama.”

U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), who is backing Obama, tried to disabuse the JCPA audience of any Israel-related concerns with a bit of humor.

“Needless to say, I’ve never heard it before, but I’ll assume some people have some questions” on Obama’s position on Israel.

He went on to list Obama’s attributes, including his letter to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations urging the U.N. Security Council to condemn rocket attacks against Israel, his rejection of the right of return before a Palestinian audience and his support of sanctions against Iran.

Wexler followed remarks by former U.S. Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, who was speaking for Clinton and called her “someone who has shown by action where she stands on the U.S.-Israel relationship.” He cited as examples her visit to the bombed Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem and her bringing a wounded Israeli soldier to New York’s Israel Day parade.

But all the emphasis on Israel may be greater here among American Jewish activists than among the American Jewish masses, said Susan Turnbull, 55, of Bethesda, a JCPA board member and vice chair of the Democratic National Committee.

The domestic issues seem to trump Israel for most Jews, she said, listing the key issues at the JCPA conference – Tikkun Olam, healthcare, anti-poverty issues, the separation of church and state and U.S.
security – as her own.

Where’s Israel on that list? “I think it’s a given,” she said. “I have complete faith in our candidates,” whose staff, she added, have made deep inroads into the Jewish community.

At the hotel bar Monday night, Adam Kaplan, a 26-year-old Clinton volunteer and JCPA activist from Washington, hosted an impromptu “rally” that he couched in terms of solidarity.

In fact, the mood was heavy among the handful of people gathered around the small cocktail table to hear him list her achievements.

“Young people are caught up in the emotion” of Obama, said Susan Penn of northern New Jersey, whose brother-in-law is Clinton’s pollster.

“I don’t think they’ve truly examined the issues,” she added, expressing concern about the momentum and enthusiasm for Obama.

Other Jewish activists have taken that information to reach alternative ends – like joining Obama’s camp.

Jan Soifer, 50, chair of Austin’s community relations council, wrestled with the question of which Democrat to support, but ultimately decided to volunteer for Obama.

She said she wanted to join the winning team.

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