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Choice of Edwards As Running Mate Fits New, Aggressive Style for Kerry

July 7, 2004
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John Kerry is back and taking his fight to Bush territory, nationally and on Jewish issues. The presumptive Democratic candidate for president ended months of speculation with his announcement Tuesday that Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) would be his running mate.

The significance for Jewish voters lies less in what Edwards offers Jews than in the fact that his selection fits a dramatic shift in how the Kerry campaign talks up Israel issues. In both cases, Kerry is coming out of a defensive posture and going on the offensive in President Bush’s comfort zones.

In choosing Edwards, Kerry ignored those who said Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), a longtime labor advocate, would shore up the traditional Democratic base. With Edwards, Kerry strikes at Bush territory in Edwards’ native South and in Midwestern states where Edwards’ message on job creation and his rags-to-riches life story resonated in the Democratic primaries.

“I think the m! ost exciting thing is that we see something akin to Clinton-Gore in 1992: This looks forward-looking in a way you don’t get from Bush and Cheney,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a political strategist who works for Democrats and the Jewish community. “It will help with the disenfranchised, the rural and the working class — what Edwards called the ‘other America.’ “

Rabinowitz said Edwards would help among rural voters in Ohio and blue-collar voters in Pennsylvania — both swing states where significant numbers of Jewish voters also could help tip the balance.

Regarding his outreach to the Jews, Kerry had to decide between a defensive and offensive posture. Until mid-June, he hewed to a line Democrats had touted for the past two years: A Democratic candidate could cede the Israel high ground to President Bush because domestic issues still would keep Jews overwhelmingly in the Democratic camp.

There was a dramatic shift late last month, when the campaign e-mailed Jewish ! supporters talking points that went beyond agreement with Bush on his pro-Israel initiatives — including Bush’s recognition in April of some Israeli claims in the West Bank and his rejection of a Palestinian refugee “right of return” to Israel — and emphasized Bush’s vulnerable areas in the U.S.-Israel relationship.

On Israel issues, Edwards was among the stronger candidates on what was a strongly pro-Israel short list of Kerry’s No. 2 choices. Edwards’ single term in the Senate has been marked by a good voting record, pro-Israel lobbyists say, and he has made much of his presence in Israel in 2001 when a suicide bomber attacked a Jerusalem pizzeria.

In its first posting on the announcement, the Kerry campaign alluded to Edward’s pro-Israel credentials, noting his meetings with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy.

Outlining his policies in a statement to JTA in January — a time that the Bush administration was saying Israel’s policy of assassinating terrorist leaders was unhelpful to peace — Ed! wards emphasized Israel’s right to defend itself against terrorist groups.

“As long as the Palestinian leadership fails to end terror, Israel has a right to take measures to defend itself,” he wrote. “Such defensive measures are not the cause of terrorism — they are the response to terrorism.”

Edwards has been strong on hemming in Israel’s regional enemies, supporting bills that limit trade with Syria, Libya and Iran. On domestic issues, Edwards and Kerry share virtually the same record on issues Jewish voters tend to care about, such as health care, abortion rights and job creation.

Choosing Edwards may help assuage Jewish concerns arising from Kerry’s missteps early in his campaign, when he appeared to criticize Israel’s West Bank security barrier and when he proposed as Middle East negotiators figures who were anathema to many supporters of Israel.

“John Edwards will be able to energize the Jewish community,” said Lonnie Kaplan, a former president of ! the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, who has met with Edwards several times. “He’ll be able to communicate in a way that will let the community be at rest that the security of Israel is not an issue in this campaign.”

Edwards will be the keynote speaker at the lead Jewish event launching the Democratic convention on July 25. The event will be hosted by an array of national Jewish groups, including the United Jewish Communities and AIPAC.

The switch from defensive to offensive postures is typical of Kerry’s earlier campaigns: Keep a low simmer until late in the game, then strike hard at the other side.

That strategy won Kerry re-election to the Senate in 1996, when he came from behind to defeat a popular challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, and it helped propel him to early primary victories this year after he had been rated last by some polls.

According to polls ahead of the November vote, the Jewish swing toward Bush has not been as great as some Democrats had feared, but Jewish Democrats still fret that c! omplacency could cost them dearly in November, especially in swing states where the Jewish vote could make the difference.

Kerry’s talking points on Israel outlined three areas where Bush may be vulnerable:

Kerry, like Edwards, is unequivocal in his rhetorical support of Israel’s right to retaliate against terrorist groups. “Kerry supports Israel’s right of self-defense to eliminate threats to its citizens,” the talking points say.

The Kerry campaign singles out Saudi Arabia for criticism, a potential weakness for Bush, whose family has longstanding ties with the Saudi royal family. “John Kerry has forcefully spoken out against anti-Semitic statements by Saudi government officials, saying it calls into question their commitment to combating terrorism and pledging that as president, he will never permit these kinds of attacks to go unanswered,” the document said.

Kerry repeats his support for moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Bush repeated! ly has used his presidential prerogative to delay such a move.

Of course, such tactics are typical of challengers, who do not have to make the choices of an incumbent: President Clinton also resisted the move to Jerusalem, and emotionally identifying with the need to strike back at terrorists is not the same as dealing with the diplomatic consequences of such attacks.

But the effectiveness of the renewed Democratic campaign among Jews, and of the choice of Edwards, was reflected in the Republican Jewish response to the Edwards announcement.

In its statement Tuesday, the Republican Jewish Coalition was unable to point to any questionable actions or votes, noting instead that Edwards lacks “national security and foreign policy experience.”

Notably, that was the stick Democrats used in 2000 to beat a Texas governor named George W. Bush.

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