'Jewish vote could swing Ohio primary'

Tuesday's primaries, especially in Texas and Ohio, could help push Obama ahead of Clinton.

us special 2 224 (photo credit: )
us special 2 224
(photo credit: )
Jewish issues have broken onto the national stage as the Democratic presidential race intensifies, with the candidates competing over the constituency in their effort to nail down the nomination. Four primaries on Tuesday, particularly those in the large states of Texas and Ohio, could help push Barack Obama decisively ahead of Hillary Clinton, over whom he now holds a slim lead in the delegate race after winning 11 straight contests. But Clinton is doing well in polls in Ohio and could take Texas as well, reenergizing her campaign as the primaries near their end. Ahead of Tuesday's votes, the media and campaigns have focused significant attention on issues such as controversial Obama supporters and candidates' ties to Israel, until now largely the province of the Jewish community alone. In recent days major US newspapers, magazines, and cabled news programs have produced stories on the fight over the Jewish votes. Most notably, last week's nationally broadcast MSNBC debate featured a question to Obama on a recent endorsement from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, described by the moderator as having put down Judaism. In response, Obama denounced Farrakhan at the same time that he stressed that Israel's "security is sacrosanct." Clinton then pushed Obama to "reject" as well as "denounce" Farrakhan, which Obama did. The Clinton campaign has tried to take advantage of the incident, with advisers sending out e-mails to Jewish voters highlighting Clinton's stance at the debate and her pledge to keep the United Nation's upcoming Durban conference on racism from becoming anti-Semitic. Obama, meanwhile, blasted Hamas on Sunday for its rocket attacks against Israel, as retaliation led to dozens of Palestinian deaths. "The violence in Gaza is the result of Hamas's decision to launch rocket attacks on Israeli civilians and Israel has a right to defend itself," he was quoted as saying. "I remain very concerned about the fate of civilians and urge Israel to do all it can to avoid civilian deaths and to keep its focus on Hamas, which bears responsibility for these events." Both camps have sent surrogates to campaign among the Jewish community and attend forums with Jewish voters ahead of the primaries in Ohio, Texas, Vermont and Rhode Island. "It's been a unique week or two in American Jewish political history," said Democratic Party strategist and Jewish outreach organizer Matt Dorf. "The Jewish vote could provide the margin of victory to either candidate in Ohio," he assessed. "So we have candidates who are actively campaigning about this issue for a vote that matters." Matt Berger, a political reporter with NBC News and the National Journal and former Jewish Telegraphic Agency correspondent, said that the query was also significant for touching on the black-Jewish divide, a sensitive issue Obama is hoping to transcend. Obama said so explicitly in response to the question on Farrakhan, offering an appeal to Jewish voters to back him because he could change the nature of that relationship. "What I want to do is rebuild what I consider to be a historic relationship between the African-American community and the Jewish community," he said. Berger said that there are also larger issues at stake, which have helped keep the debate question in the public eye throughout the past week - an eternity in election coverage. In addition to Farrakhan's position as a controversial figure, the media everywhere are looking for points of difference between the candidates. ABC News senior politics reporter Rick Klein noted the campaign's use of the term "kitchen sink time," meaning anything and everything gets thrown at the candidates. He said a lot of the issues - such as questions on Obama's supporters - have been percolating on the Internet and other venues and have now broken into the mainstream. So far, Klein said, he doesn't see recent Jewish-related issues swaying voters significantly, but added, "This is a very close contest, so anything at the margins can help." Berger said that the intense focus on these issues was also telling about the Jewish community, whose contributions - both in votes and donations to campaigns - represent a far larger amount of candidate support than their actual numbers, some two percent of the country's population. "The community always had influence beyond [its] numbers and this is another sign of that," he said.