Candidates for 2008 courting Jewish support

A glance at the candidates and where they stand on issues of concerns to the Jewish people.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
It's a Washington ritual as reliable as the cherry blossoms, if nowhere near as pretty: Midterm congressional elections are over and aspirants for the most powerful job in the world are throwing their hats into the race for the US presidency. Another ritual within the ritual is lining up Jewish support, and this year is no different. Some candidates are acting immediately: This month, US Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) plucked Jay Zeidman, President Bush's popular Jewish outreach official, to lead his Jewish campaign.
  • Burning Issues #22: Will candidates' Iraq stance affect coming crisis with Iran? Sometimes it's even sooner than immediately: For the past two years, Ann Lewis, who has been prominent in Jewish causes since she served as the Clinton administration's deputy communications director, has been sounding out Jewish support for Clinton's wife, US Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Here's a glance at the candidates and where they stand on issues of concerns to the Jewish people.
    The Democrats
  • US Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) You probably won't hear all about Clinton's Jewish step-grandfather this time around. That's because she won't need to grab at Jewish straws after six years of support for Jewish causes that activists across the spectrum say is stellar. Clinton's 2000 run for the Senate was marred by a 1999 incident in which she sat by and said nothing as Suha Arafat, Yasser Arafat's wife, accused Israel of deliberately poisoning children. Clinton and Suha Arafat embraced after the speech. Clinton later claimed the interpreter skipped over the poisoning allegation, but she set about atoning for the gaffe. In addition to the revelation about her step-granddad, she told two different Jewish audiences within weeks of Suhagate that Jerusalem was Israel's indivisible capital. She won solidly that year, but with less-than-enthusiastic Jewish support. By 2006, however, Jewish support for Clinton was overwhelming and spanned the religious spectrum. Much of the money she has raised - some analysts expect her to bring in $500 million by election time - has come from Jewish donors. Pro-Israel lobbyists say Clinton's voting record on issues related to funding for Israel and isolating its enemies, including Iran and Syria, has been top notch, and she has visited the country multiple times since becoming a senator. On domestic issues, too, she is reliably pro-choice and backs increased federal involvement in health care, stances that reflect the majority US Jewish opinion. Her supporters say one area where Clinton has strengthened Jewish support might offer a clue to how she plans to overcome overwhelming conservative opposition to her candidacy, a residue of the 1990s culture wars: She seeks imaginative legislative solutions to get funding to parochial institutions while not skirting church-state divisions.
  • US Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del) As the lead Democratic spokesman on foreign policy - Biden chairs the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee - his rhetoric on Israel at times has been tough. Biden repeatedly has suggested that Israel and the United States "blew it" in the summer of 2003 by not sufficiently backing Mahmoud Abbas, who was then the Palestinian Authority prime minister. Abbas eventually quit because P.A. President Yasser Arafat frustrated his efforts to make peace with Israel, but he also accused Israel and the United States of failing to provide concessions that might have helped him confront Arafat. Pro-Israel advocates say there's a substantial gap between Biden's rhetoric and how he ultimately votes: He has a solid pro-Israel voting record and was a leader of the successful effort last year to pass the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act, which isolates the Palestinian Authority's Hamas leadership as long as it backs terrorism and refuses to recognize Israel. Biden, like many other leading Democrats, has been reluctant to sign on to efforts to isolate Iran as long as it poses a nuclear threat, preferring to keep channels open to the Islamic republic.
  • US Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill) Much of Obama's current appeal has to do with his vocal opposition to the Iraq war in 2002-03, when he was a state senator in Illinois, at a time when it was not popular to oppose the war. Arab Americans initially held out hopes that his iconoclasm extended to Israel-Palestinian issues. During the 2004 primaries, Obama said Bush had neglected the region, and in private conversations with Arab-American donors he reportedly said he favored a more "even-handed" US approach between Israel and the Palestinians. Since then, however, Obama has cultivated a solidly pro-Israel record, and he visited the Jewish state last year. He has developed close ties with Chicago's Jewish community, and some of its major donors backed him among more than a dozen candidates - some Jewish - in the 2004 primaries.
  • Sen. John Edwards The appearance by the former Democratic senator from North Carolina at last year's American Israel Public Affairs Committee's policy forum was the first substantial sign that he was considering another run for the White House after he failed in his 2004 bid to win the Democratic primary and then the vice presidency. The millionaire trial lawyer had focused almost exclusively on his "two Americas" theme in combating poverty and advocating for universal health care in his primaries campaign, and Republicans cast him as a lightweight on foreign policy. He drew loud applause when he endorsed AIPAC's trademark issue: isolating Iran as long as it resists nuclear transparence. "For years I have argued that the United States has not been doing enough to deal with the growing threat in Iran," he said. "While we've talked about the dangers of nuclear terrorism, we've largely stood on the sidelines as the problems got worse. I believe that for far too long, we've abdicated our responsibility to deal with the Iranian threat to the Europeans." Such talk has helped draw major Jewish donors to Edwards' campaign. He raised eyebrows late last year, however, when he named as his campaign director David Bonior, a former Michigan congressman noted for his tough criticism of Israel. Bonior and Edwards reached out to top pro-Israel figures and assured them that Bonior's role would not extend to foreign policy. Others: • Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) is probably the toughest critic of Israel among Democratic candidates. Next month he will be a featured speaker at a conference of Sabeel, a pro-Palestinian group, and in recent years he has consistently abstained or voted against pro-Israel measures. Kucinich maintains close ties with some dovish Jewish groups, and at times has challenged his ideological compatriots, once saying he was never convinced that Yasser Arafat gave up on his dream of eliminating Israel. Kucinich's candidacy is perhaps the longest shot this year, but he has accrued foreign policy credibility for opposing the Iraq war from the outset. • US Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). Another longshot, but with a solid pro-Israel record. He told an AIPAC audience in Houston in October that he doubted the viability of a Palestinian state in the near future. • Gov. Tom Vilsack. The former Iowa governor hopes to appeal to voters as a Democrat who won two terms in a solidly Republican state. He is close to the small pro-Israel community in his state and recently visited Israel.
    The Republicans
  • US Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) McCain's Jewish strategy mirrors his broader realignment in recent years with Republicans who are loyal to President Bush, leaving behind the bloodletting of the tough 2000 primaries campaign. In addition to Jay Zeidman, he is counting on an endorsement from the former White House liaison's father, Fred Zeidman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and a major fund-raiser for Bush. Another likely endorser is Ned Siegel, who was the named plaintiff in the successful effort to stop the Florida recount, a decision that placed Bush in the White House. McCain has a solid pro-Israel record, and he has been outspoken about isolating Iran as long as it poses a nuclear threat. He made that call most recently in a satellite address at this week's Herzliya Conference and in October at an American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference. McCain has toughened his opposition to abortion and gay marriage, positions that place him at odds with most American Jews. Yet he also has forged alliances with domestic Jewish groups on issues such as campaign-finance reform and against torture.
  • Rudy Giuliani The former New York City mayor may be the perfect Republican candidate for Jewish Americans: He's one of Israel's most vocal supporters in the United States and is unapologetically moderate on social issues like abortion and gay marriage. Giuliani has been circumspect about his candidacy in recent weeks. He has performed well in polling because of the reputation as "America's mayor" that he earned after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but he's seeking strategies to reconcile his moderation on social issues with the conservative Republican base. Still, he is assembling a formidable campaign team, including Jeff Berkowitz, another former White House liaison to the Jewish community, as research director. Giuliani had overwhelming Jewish support as New York mayor from 1993 to 2001, once booting Yasser Arafat out of a concert hall: The federal government may need to deal with the once and future terrorist, Giuliani said, but he did not. Giuliani has visited Israel multiple times, and formed a fast friendship with his Jerusalem counterpart at the time, Ehud Olmert, who is now Israel's prime minister. Giuliani's closeness to Israel did not end once he left politics. In his final days as mayor, he rejected a $10 million donation from a Saudi prince because the giver blamed the Sept. 11 attacks in part on U.S. support for Israel. In 2004, delivering the keynote speech at the Republican convention in New York, Giuliani emphatically noted Bush's outspoken support for the Jewish state.
  • Gov. Mitt Romney Romney passed on a bid for a second term as Massachusetts governor to get started on the Republican nomination this year. He wasted no time in making clear his message of solid support for Israel. That's because however well governors perform on domestic issues - and Romney made significant inroads with the liberal Jewish community in the Boston area - they need to act quickly to establish foreign policy credentials. Romney was one of four candidates to address the Herzliya Conference this week, but the only one to do so in person. He spoke forcefully about isolating Iran as long as it poses a nuclear threat, noting that he refused to provide police protection for its former president, Mohammad Khatami, when he spoke in the Boston area last year. He also called for the indictment of Iran's current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on genocide charges. "The United States should lead this effort," Romney said. "The full title of the Genocide Convention is the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Remember that word `prevention.' " Ahmadinejad has called repeatedly for the destruction of Israel and has denied the Holocaust. More practically, Romney also has attracted top Republican Jewish donors, including Mel Sembler, the former ambassador to Rome. Charlie Spies, formerly the counsellor to the Republican National Committee, is now the Romney campaign's counsel. Nancy Kaufman, who directs the Jewish Community Relations Council in the Boston area, said Romney earned community admiration for shepherding universal health care through the legislature and for his solidly pro-Israel credentials. But she said some were disappointed by his rightward drift on social issues like abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and gay marriage. As a Senate candidate in 1994, Romney had tacked left on such issues.
  • US Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) is a leader on pro-Israel issues, especially relating to Israel's claim to Jerusalem. He also is strongly conservative on social issues like abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem-cell research, but he has earned respect among some liberal Jewish groups for leading his party into advocacy on behalf of Darfur, the area of Sudan ravaged by government-allied militias.
  • Newt Gingrich The former speaker of the US House of Representatives has a stellar pro-Israel record and was the architect of the 2004 campaign strategy of reaching out to Jewish voters by emphasizing President Bush's pro-Israel record.
  • US Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) and U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.). Both candidates are identified with strong anti-immigrant sentiment in their party, positioning themselves against broad-based Jewish community support for a degree of amnesty for illegal immigrants. Tancredo also is an isolationist and has opposed foreign assistance, although both candidates have solidly supported measures isolating terrorists and their supporters. Rachel Mauro, JTA's Washington intern, contributed to this report.