NEW YORK (JTA) – The Democratic race may have a few more weeks left, but Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain are already waging a bruising battle for Jewish support in the general election.
In recent days, the McCain team has stepped up its efforts to link Obama to Hamas, with several surrogates also misrepresenting the Democratic candidate’s comments to make it seem as if he had criticized Israel in harsh terms.
At the same time, Obama has been stepping up his outreach to Jewish voters, giving several high-profile interviews and speeches outlining his support for Israel and ties to the Jewish community.
In addition to granting lengthy interviews to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and Martin Peretz, the editor-in-chief of The New Republic – two journalists well known and respected among many pro-Israel activists – he also spoke at last week’s Israel 60 event hosted by the Israel Embassy in Washington. Obama was also scheduled to spend several days campaigning in Florida next week.
The flurry of campaign activity comes as a new poll shows Jewish voters overwhelmingly backing Obama over McCain, but suggesting that the Arizona Republican currently commands more support than previous GOP nominees.
According to the poll, conducted by Gallup, Obama would win 61 to 32 percent among Jews, slightly less than the 66 to 27 percent advantage that U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) would have over McCain.
Some Republicans were quick to note that either number would represent a significant drop from the 80 percent or so that Bill Clinton and Al Gore each reportedly won in their respective presidential runs, or the 75 percent that John Kerry took in 2004. Some Democrats, meanwhile, were insisting that Obama’s figures would go up once the media and voters began focusing their attention on McCain’s support for a range of conservative positions. Just last week, for example, he promised he would appoint U.S. Supreme Court justices like John Roberts and Samuel Alito.
The apparent potential for movement in either direction appears to be energizing partisans on both sides, and has insiders predicting an increasingly bitter fight.
The big flap this week involved Obama’s lengthy interview about Israel and the Middle East with The Atlantic.
Obama spent a good deal of the interview stressing his support for a variety of positions held by most prominent Jewish organizations, including the U.S. policy of boycotting Hamas unless it recognizes Israel, renounces violence and honors past agreements with Jerusalem. He also strongly rejected former President Jimmy Carter’s use of the term apartheid in connection to Israel, saying the term was “emotionally loaded, historically inaccurate, and it’s not what I believe.”
During the interview, Obama also recalled that from his days in elementary school, “as a kid who never felt like he was rooted,” there was something “powerful and compelling” to him about the Jewish and Zionist narrative of enduring tragedy and returning home.
But top GOP lawmakers and the Republican Jewish Coalition were quick to pounce on a portion of the interview in which Obama insisted that he did not see Israel as a “drag” on America’s reputation overseas, but described the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a “constant wound” and a “constant sore” that infects all of U.S. foreign policy.
The minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, John Boehner (R-Ohio), and U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), another top-ranking House Republican and the body’s only Jewish GOPer, both issued statements claiming that Obama had used those terms to describe Israel, rather than the conflict. The Republican Jewish Coalition also criticized Obama’s remarks.
Goldberg, who conducted the interview, responded with a biting blog post about Boehner’s statement
“Mr. Boehner, I’m sure, is a terribly busy man, with many burdensome responsibilities, so I have to assume that he simply didn’t have time to read the entire Obama interview, or even the entire paragraph, or even a single clause. If he had, of course, he would have seen that Obama was clearly calling the Middle East conflict, and not Israel, a sore,” Goldberg wrote. “Why, there’s no one who would disagree that the Middle East conflict is a ‘sore,’ is there?
Goldberg then invited Boehner to issue a correction stating “the obvious, which is that Obama expressed – in twelve different ways – his support for Israel to me.”
Even before the scuffle over The Atlantic interview, Obama and his supporters were crying foul over the McCain camp’s repeated references to the fact that one Hamas official was quoted as saying that he favored Obama because he has a vision to change America so that it leads the “world community but not with domination and arrogance.”
“I think it’s very clear who Hamas wants to be the next president of the United States. I think people should understand that I would be Hamas’ worst nightmare,” McCain said. “If Senator Obama is favored by Hamas, I think people can make judgments accordingly.”
Obama, in an interview Sunday with Wolf Blitzer on CNN, called McCain’s comments a “smear,” noting that the two candidates have expressed virtually identical positions on Hamas. He called the comments an example of the Arizona Republican “losing his bearings as he pursues this nomination.”
The context would seem to suggest that Obama was referring to the fact that McCain has repeatedly expressed his desire for a clean campaign about issues. But a McCain aide issued a statement accusing Obama of making a crack about the Republican’s age.
In a separate interview with Blitzer on Sunday, McCain’s most prominent Jewish backer, U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), also raised the Hamas issue. Lieberman said that McCain has made clear that Obama “clearly doesn’t support any of the values and goals of Hamas,” but the question is why would someone associated with the terrorist group favor Obama.
“It suggests the difference between these two candidates,” Lieberman said.
In his interview with The Atlantic, Obama offered an explanation for why some right-leaning members of the Jewish community might have a problem with him. The Illinois Democrat said that he was absolutely convinced that “some of the tensions that might arise between me and some of the more hawkish elements in the Jewish community in the United States might stem from the fact that I’m not going to blindly adhere to whatever the most hawkish position is just because that’s the safest ground politically.”
“I want to solve the problem, and so my job in being a friend to Israel is partly to hold up a mirror and tell the truth,” he said, citing the issue of settlements as one example where tough questions need to be asked.
“I want to make sure that the people of Israel, when they kiss their kids and put them on that bus, feel at least no more existential dread than any parent does whenever their kids leave their sight,” Obama said. “So that then becomes the question: Is settlement policy conducive to relieving that over the long term, or is it just making the situation worse? That’s the question that has to be asked.”