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For the past three decades, observers of American Jewish life have struggled with the question of whether foreign-policy issues should overwhelm domestic concerns in the battle for Jewish votes.
But in November, this debate ought to get the attention of a wider audience. That is because it may well be on this seemingly arcane question that the fate of not only one prominent US senator, but control of the US Congress itself, may be decided.
The senator in question is Rick Santorum, the two-term Pennsylvania incumbent who's facing the stiffest challenge of his political life. In a year in which Democrats think the unpopularity of President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq could be enough to undo the Republican hold on both houses of Congress, this race is key.
As an outspoken opponent of abortion and gay marriage, Santorum - the third-ranking Republican in the Senate leadership - is a particular focus of liberal anger against the GOP majority in Congress. As such, Santorum's views on social issues makes his defeat an outcome ardently desired by many in a community where resentment and fear of conservative Christians remains widespread.
Yet this is the same senator who handily won reelection six years ago with what exit polls revealed was approximately 40 percent of the Jewish vote, running far ahead of George W. Bush in a state easily won by Democrat Al Gore. This total, the same percentage of the Jewish vote won nationally by Ronald Reagan in 1980, was credited to Santorum's outstanding support for Israel and a lackluster opponent.
Santorum was something of an afterthought for the Democrats in 2000, but now he is among their No. 1 targets. Polls have shown him consistently trailing his Democratic opponent, Bob Casey, though his deficit may be shrinking as the race comes down to the last couple of months.
Jews make up less than 2.5 percent of the population in Pennsylvania. But in a race that could be decided by a tiny margin, higher Jewish turnout rates could prove crucial to the outcome of the election and, ultimately, to the ability of the Republicans to hold onto a majority in the Senate.
The question is: Can Santorum's ardent pro-Israel credentials trump his status as the embodiment of religious conservatism to win enough Jewish votes to help squeak out a third term?
The answer from the Democrats is a resounding no. They argue that support for Israel in Washington is a bipartisan affair that will not suffer from Santorum's absence. They also assert that once in office, the uncharismatic Casey will prove to be just as friendly to Israel as Santorum.
Even more important is the fact that most Jews are simply not single-issue voters. And they're probably right to think that no matter how active on behalf of pro-Israel causes Santorum may be, many Jews would still never vote for a pro-life Catholic Republican, even if the alternative were a pro-life Democrat who was considered lukewarm on Israel.
Ron Klink, Santorum's foe in 2000, proved this point when he still won the majority of Jewish votes, albeit by a narrow margin, despite being weak on Israel while opposing both abortion and gun control. But the difference between then and now is that Santorum has been even more outspoken about his conservative social beliefs in the last six years. His controversial book highlighting these views may have enhanced his status nationally among Republicans, but it alienated centrist Pennsylvanians.
The heightened spirit of partisanship that has injected so much bitterness and anger into the process since the national elections of 2000 and 2004 may also work against Santorum.
In 2000, the presence of a pro-life and anti-gun control Democrat on the ballot against Santorum dismayed enough Jewish liberals to depress both fundraising and voter turnout for Klink. But Casey's candidacy has been warmly embraced by Jewish Democrats despite his social views. Dislike for Santorum and the GOP majority runs so deep that hard-core liberals seem to be willing to hold their noses and work to elect a candidate like Casey, whose campaign hinges on him being the un-Santorum.
THE IRONY of this is not lost on Republican Jews, who think foreign-policy issues ought to be even more important in deciding Jewish votes in the 2006 race than they were in 2000.
Friends of Santorum, such as his moderate Jewish Republican colleague in the Senate, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who was recently here speaking on Santorum's behalf, can't understand why Jewish voters wouldn't prioritize the Israel issue in a year in which Israel has been at war and anti-Semitism seems to be on the rise around the world. If anything, they say this is exactly the year in which arguments about gay marriage and abortion ought to be put to the side, and Santorum's willingness to be a leader on bills that target Syria, Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah, as well as anti-Semitism, ought to be rewarded. They also believe that of all segments of the electorate, it ought to be the Jews - whose identification with an Israel that has suffered through an intifada and terrorist offensives from Hamas and Hizbullah - who are willing to say that the post-9/11 war on terror remains the defining issue of our time.
But that doesn't take into account the fact that it is the situation in Iraq, and not the broader battle against Islamo-fascists, that could be decisive this fall. Polls have also consistently shown that anti-war sentiment is stronger among Jews than the general public, even though it can be argued that a pullout from Iraq would worsen Israel's situation.
With Santorum so closely identified with Bush and the Christian Right, both of whose pro-Israel stands haven't earned them much credit among Jews, it may be that the senator's own pro-Israel credentials will mean nothing on Election Day. A resurgent Democratic tide in a community that is second only to African-Americans in their dogged loyalty to the party of Franklin Roosevelt could make the difference. And unseating the incumbent in Pennsylvania is essential if the Democrats are to retake the Senate.
Santorum should not be underestimated. He may yet exploit Casey's inability to make a case for himself, as opposed to one against the incumbent, and ultimately find a way to win.
But in order to do that he may have to find enough Pennsylvania Jews who are more worried about Hizbullah than they are about the Christian Right. Whether they exist in sufficient numbers to aid his cause is a question that will only be answered in November.
The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.
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