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At Aipac Conference, Candidates Shake Hands — and Hope for Support

April 2, 2003
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Along one hallway in a Washington hotel Sunday night, the first signs of how Jewish support for the 2004 Democratic presidential challengers will be doled out came into focus.

Howard Dean, the anti-war former governor of Vermont, talked shop with a strong crowd of unfamiliar faces in a room half the size of Lieberman’s. While he walked virtually anonymously to the reception room, he left in a scrum similar to the Jewish senator’s.

While it is by no means a scientific survey, the crowds and enthusiasm at the receptions following the first day of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference gave a clue as to where Jewish support is going in the primary election.

Political analysts often say that the Jewish community’s influence in politics goes well beyond its percentage of the electorate: American Jews are more apt to give money to presidential candidates than are other demographic groups, and do the grassroots work that campaigns thrive on.

Those who come to an AIPAC conference have proven they are involved in the process, making them a perfect place for candidates to make their presidential pitch.

“The men and women of AIPAC, including the college students, are as politically active collectively as any group in America,” said Steve Grossman, a former AIPAC president and chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who now advises Dean.

Officially there is no fundraising at the AIPAC event, as both the candidates and AIPAC staffers often remind people. In fact, none of the contenders was invited to speak at the conference, though all were offered the opportunity to host a reception and attend Monday’s gala.

“If we invited them all to speak, we wouldn’t have time for our program, which examines the importance of the U.S.- Israel relationship,” AIPAC spokeswoman Rebecca Dinar said.

Still, more than half of the candidates made their presence known, largely because the next hand a candidate shakes at an AIPAC event might lead to a check in the future.

“It’s a good way to get influential, high profile and often wealthy members of your core constituency,” said Ken Goldstein, a professor of political science and Judaic studies at the University of Wisconsin. “Grassroots are important but grass tops are important, and these are grass tops.”

That theory does not hold just for presidential candidates, but for anyone with political aspirations. That’s why half of the Senate and close to half of the U.S. House of Representatives came to AIPAC’s Monday night gala.

“You’ve got enormously active people in that hall, who are central to the political aspirations of the other people in that room,” Grossman said.

Indeed, at the pre-gala cocktail reception, lawmakers and aspirants grabbed as many hands as possible, and business cards were exchanged freely. One of Graham’s staffers carried a note pad, taking down names of each person the presidential hopeful met.

“When I initially got into this I thought it was going to hurt, but it hasn’t hurt,” Dean told JTA. “Joe’s constituency is very different than mine.”

Gephardt said that attendance at one night’s event is not indicative of the big picture.

“I’ve raised money from people all over the country,” he told JTA. “All kinds of people give me money because they think I do a good job.”

AIPAC may not be the best gauge for the Jewish community’s support of candidates. Goldstein says AIPAC voters are more hawkish and conservative than they used to be, something that would help Lieberman but hurt Dean and Gephardt.

Many other Jews don’t vote solely on Israel issues but on domestic policy, which leaves the field much more open.

But there are some Jews that vote based on a candidate’s take on Israel, especially at AIPAC. And perhaps one of the stronger candidates for 2004 among this group — President Bush — didn’t need a reception room.

“I probably will support George Bush again, and I’m a life-long Democrat,” said Anita Gold of Boca Raton, Fla.

Bush’s support among the Jewish community has grown consistently over the last two years, as his rhetoric on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has moved closer to the positions of Israel and AIPAC. That makes the Jewish money left for Democratic candidates all the more valuable this time around.

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