Analyze This: Though McCain got here first, J'lem visit might be just what Obama needs

Doubts remain about senator's candidacy among Jewish voters.

obama supporters 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
obama supporters 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Just as Sen. Barack Obama was having to publicly disassociate himself Tuesday from statements made by the controversial pastor he has described as his spiritual mentor - including "a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel" - here in Jerusalem, Sen. John McCain was wrapping up a tour of Yad Vashem in the company of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, and telling reporters, "We have chosen now as a nation and a world to make sure that 'never again' is a reality." It was that kind of week for the two front-runners in the US presidential campaign, one in which the likely Democratic candidate struggled to regain his footing in a tight primary race, while the guaranteed Republican standard-bearer got to act as if he were already beginning to conduct his administration's foreign policy. The results could already be seen in polls released yesterday, both those that show Obama losing ground to Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Pennsylvania primary on April 22, and in at least one significant survey (Reuters/Zogby) that now has him falling behind McCain in a national match-up, by almost the same gap (46 to 40 percent) by which he led the Arizona senator just a month ago. It was also a week in which The New Republic's Leon Weiseltier felt compelled to declare that "The Jewish community's fears about Obama say more about their own neuroses than any real danger in Obama's Israel policies" - even as mainstream media pundits speculated how the Jewish vote could end up hurting the candidate next month in Pennsylvania, and possibly next November in such states as Florida and Michigan. That possibility is now, as it has been the past few months, greatly exaggerated. The irony is that among the hugely significant white male electorate, the very small Jewish percentile of that constituency still comprises the most traditionally loyal of Democratic voters. Yet the Jewish community's "neuroses" that Weiseltier is a little too quick to dismiss in this case, the "fears" that some segments have expressed about Obama's candidacy - not all of them as "pro-Likud" as the Illinois senator earlier commented - this week look more prophetic than neurotic. Not the e-mail smear campaigns focusing on his familial background and childhood education, but the legitimate concerns based largely on his relatively scanty public resume, and his emergence from an African-American political milieu in which radical views unacceptable to the US mainstream (anti-Zionism being only one of them) sometime find expression. In his speech on Tuesday, Obama spoke eloquently and persuasively to the latter point in explaining why such views take shape, and why he has rejected them (although not all such individuals who hold them, such as the Rev. Jeremiah Wright). In specifically identifying "the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam" as the prime source of conflict in this region, he likely did what was necessary to retain most of those Jewish voters who were already prepared to support him as the Democratic candidate. But Obama's problem is not, of course, with Jewish voters - it is primarily with those white male voters of other ethnicities whose support he will need, first of all to convincingly win over Clinton if he is to emerge from this summer's Democratic convention not too hobbled to win a general election over McCain. The early evidence so far is that his address this week, as thoughtful and insightful as it was, was not by itself sufficient to overcome the doubts about his candidacy that has cropped up in the past few weeks among this key constituency. Of course, in political terms, there is still a long way to go before November - or even the next primary vote in April. Much can happen before that - including in Iraq, where McCain has staked the credibility of his own campaign on a situation that still has the possibility of deteriorating significantly over the next seven months, and on Wall Street, where a continuing meltdown in the financial sector could fatally damage the chances of any Republican succeeding George W. Bush in the White House. Barack Obama would undoubtedly be in a far better place right now if had acted earlier to disassociate himself from his pastor's political outlook, a problem that some members of the Jewish community raised an early warning sign about - one he would have done well to have heeded. If Obama does succeed in setting his campaign back on the right track in the coming weeks and gains the nomination, he will still have to prove to a wider public just how far he is willing to go to distance himself from some of Rev. Wright's more extreme views. Here's one suggestion: McCain may have gotten here first this year, and bookings are tight for the summer - but I'm sure room can be found here in Jerusalem for you later this year, Senator Obama, just in case you decide, too, that this campaign season may well be a good time to pay us a visit. [email protected]