PHILADELPHIA (JTA) – U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign for president launched a Jewish outreach effort in Pennsylvania this week, emphasizing her track record on issues of concerns to Jewish voters.
Jews “don’t have the luxury to decide if someone may be OK down the road,” Marcel Groen, the chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Party, said Tuesday at a gathering of Jewish communal and organizational leaders in Philadelphia.
“We have one candidate we know, the other we don’t,” Groen said, referring to U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who is behind in the polls as Pennsylvania heads toward its April 22 primary.
The Jewish outreach comes as both campaigns are intensifying their efforts in Pennsylvania. The outcome of the primary will likely play a key role in determining whether Clinton has a chance to clinch the Democratic nomination, given that she is trailing Obama in pledged delegate support.
Clinton is widely expected to win the state, but the question is how big her margin will be. Her supporters say she needs to pull off big numbers and do well in the remaining primaries and caucuses to give her enough momentum to convince the superdelegates – who most likely will determine the outcome – that she is the right choice for the Democratic nom ination.
The outreach also comes as a national Gallup Poll last week showed the gap narrowing between Clinton and Obama among Jewish voters.
A poll of American Jews in November had showed Clinton with a much higher approval rating than Obama, but the recent Gallup Poll found a tight race among Jews, with Clinton winning 48 percent to 43 percent. The differential falls within the 6 percent margin of error for the 368 Jews who were interviewed.
Ann Lewis, the senior adviser to Clinton who is directing Jewish outreach in the campaign, dismissed the latest Gallup Poll.
“I know she is doing very well with Jewish voters,” Lewis told JTA, before addressing an intimate luncheon gathering of area rabbis. She added wryly: “Sometimes, the polls have been a little off this election season.”
At the same time, a group of Jewish Pennsylvanians supporting Obama issued an open letter explaining their support for the Illinois senator.
Among the signatories were a few rabbis and two Jewish representatives to the Pennsylvania state Legislature – Josh Shapiro and Daylin Leach.
“Senator Obama has earned our respect and gratitude because of his support for traditional Jewish values and his commitment to a peaceful and prosperous Israel,” the letter said.
The letter also lauded Obama’s recent speech in which he repudiated the views of his controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., and compared support for Obama to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s famous description of marching for civil rights in Selma as “praying with his feet.”
“We have each chosen to pray with our feet and stand with Barack Obama because he is sensitive to the issues of the Jewish community and a stalwart supporter of Israel,” the letter said.
While Obama’s campaign is continuing to attract Jewish support, Clinton is favored by most of the state’s Jewish political and communal heavyweights. Her list of supporters includes Gov. Ed Rendell, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz and the president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Leonard Barrack.
Lewis, saying that she personally signs off on all official communication to the Jewish community, insisted the Jewish-targeted e-mail and Internet attacks on Obama focusing on advisers with a critical view of Israel and his pastor are not emanating from campaign headquarters.
And publicly at least, Clinton’s Jewish point people are emphasizing her positive attributes.
“On every issue of importance to us – from the domestic agenda we call tikkun olam [repair of the world] to the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Clinton is “not just supportive, but she is a leader,” Lewis said to both the rabbis and the communal leaders in Philadelphia.
“It’s not just what she says but what she does,” she added.
Lewis cited as specifics her efforts to bring attention to anti-Israel, anti-Semitic Palestinian textbooks and to gain entry for Magen David Adom to the International Red Cross.
Pressed to distinguish Clinton from Obama on specific issues, Lewis cited Iran. She reiterated Clinton’s position that she would not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.
Noting that Clinton sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Lewis said the candidate is “for diplomacy and engagement, but it has to be smart.”
Lewis chided Obama’s statement that he would sit with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his first year in office.
“You don’t give away a meeting with the president of the United States” without first requiring a change in behavior, she said.
As they launched their statewide outreach effort, which includes at least eight more events in the next two weeks, Clinton’s backers scoffed at the notion that Clinton should drop out early, before the remaining 10 primaries and millions of voters have had their say.
“The notion that Hillary should step aside is outrageous,” Schwartz told the communal leaders.
They outlined a strategy that focuses on taking Pennsylvania and the remaining contests, showing the superdelegates that having won in most of the big swing states, Clinton is the one who can beat Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in November.
As Mark Aronchick, a prominent Philadelphia attorney and chairman of Clinton’s Pennsylvania finance committee, put it, “The only question that matters to superdelegates is who will win in November.”