Iran grabs spotlight in Democratic race

Issue has become major focus of North Carolina and Indiana campaigns in ahead of Tuesday vote.

clinton obama 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
clinton obama 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The Jewish vote might be an insignificant factor in Tuesday's North Carolina and Indiana primaries, but an issue of great concern to the Jewish community has become a major focus of the campaigns there: Iran and its threat to Israel. Jews make up less than half of one percent of the populations of Indiana, a large Midwestern state, and North Carolina, a southern coastal state, both of which are due to vote Tuesday in the drawn-out Democratic primary process that has yet to crown either Illinois Senator Barack Obama or New York Senator Hillary Clinton the party nominee. Obama leads in the popular vote and in delegates to the nominating convention, and is topping the polls in North Carolina but not Indiana. Clinton is hoping that a victory in the latter among the predominantly white, working-class population will strengthen her argument that superdelegates should buck the ballot box tally and back her because she can best win over this crucial demographic. Clinton has been pushing a hawkish stand on Iran in recent to days - saying that the US would offer "massive retaliation" to any Iranian attack on Israel - to make the case to the voters and the superdelegates that she would be the strongest candidate to face Republican nominee John McCain in November. "She is trying to prove by being strong on Iran that she has a better understanding of what's going on in the world and has the strength to deal with it," explained Democratic analyst Hank Sheinkopf, who is not affiliated with any candidate. Though tough talk on Iran could hurt her among Democratic primary voters in more progressive states, Sheinkopf said national security issues were more important to the voters she would be facing on Tuesday. "They are more conservative generally, except on economic issues," he said of Indiana and North Carolina Democrats. "Blue collar whites would be very concerned about [defense] and more receptive to that kind of rhetoric." He added that Iran would be particularly meaningful for one of the demographics she's strongest with: older voters who remember the Iranian Revolution and the Americans seized when Jimmy Carter was president. "Iran will always have particular significance for older voters because of the hostage crisis, and because Iran is now perceived as the greatest threat to world peace," Sheinkopf said. But Obama has tried to use Clinton's Iran posture against her, describing her comments Sunday as "language reflective of George Bush" akin to "bluster and saber rattling." Obama has used this approach before as the two have disagreed on how to deal with international threats, specifically Iran, with both stressing diplomatic engagement but Clinton stopping short of being willing to meet Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Clinton also backed a non-binding resolution to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist group, a move that Obama attacked for aiding Bush's bellicose rhetoric. Clinton, however, didn't back down when asked to respond to Obama's comments later Sunday. "Why would I have any regrets? I'm asked a question about what I would do if Iran attacked our ally ... and, yes, we would have massive retaliation against Iran," Clinton said. "I don't think they will do that, but I sure want to make it abundantly clear to them that they would face a tremendous cost if they did such a thing." Clinton first staked out such a position during a debate in Philadelphia before the primary there on April 22. Both candidates were asked if the US should include Israel in a "security umbrella" in the face of an Iranian attack. Obama called such an attack an "unacceptable" act of aggression and promised that "the United States would take appropriate action." But Clinton went further, saying Israel, as well as Arab allies who forgo nuclearization, should be included in such an umbrella. The next week, she was asked what she would do if Iran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons on her watch. "I want the Iranians to know that if I'm the president, we will attack Iran," Clinton said. "In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them." Obama also said Sunday that, "Senator Clinton, during the course of the campaign, has said we shouldn't speculate about Iran, we've got to be cautious when we're running for president, she scolded me on a couple of occasions on this issue, yet a few days before an election, she's willing to use that language." AP contributed to this report.