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Obama courts Jewish voters

He tries to counter skepticism about his commitment to Israel.

July 24, 2008|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Though Sen. Barack Obama drew a warm reception from Israeli leaders Wednesday, the likely Democratic presidential nominee has yet to fire up many Jews back home.

Obama is comfortably ahead of Republican John McCain in polls among Jewish voters. But he is running more than 10 points behind where Democratic nominee John F. Kerry was in 2004, according to several recent polls. He is nearly 20 points behind where Bill Clinton finished in 1992.

His supporters are hoping the photo ops in Jerusalem and elsewhere can help garner more support from a group that, although it represents just 4% of the electorate, could be critical this fall in close states such as Florida.

"Let's face it, there's been some skepticism to overcome," said Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Obama ally helping his outreach in the Jewish community. "But we're certainly not going to leave any stone unturned."

Obama's critics have sought for months to raise doubts about his support for Israel.

Since saying last year that he would sit down with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions, Obama has had to parry charges that he would appease a country many see as Israel's most dangerous threat.

And he has faced criticism that some of his most prominent supporters, such as former President Carter, are not pro-Israel. Carter outraged many Israelis this year by meeting with leaders of the militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., was an outspoken supporter of Nation of Islam founder Louis Farrakhan, whose views are widely seen as anti-Semitic. Obama severed his ties with Wright this spring.

"You really have to worry," said Morris Amitay, a McCain supporter and former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, ticking off Obama's associations.

On Wednesday, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, a McCain supporter heading his outreach among Jewish voters, predicted that Obama's position on Israel would help McCain approach Ronald Reagan's 1980 success, winning 39% of the Jewish vote. "The uptick already is impressive," Cantor said.

A Gallup Poll in June showed Obama leading McCain among Jewish voters, 62% to 29%. In comparison, every Democratic presidential nominee since 1992 has won at least three-quarters of the Jewish vote.

To counter the criticism, Obama has been carefully stressing his commitment to protecting Israel.

He also is creating a series of Jewish outreach committees across the country and plans a Jewish American page on his campaign website. The Los Angeles committee, headed by Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village) and former Rep. Mel Levine, kicked off last month.

Last month in Washington, Obama delivered a strongly worded address to AIPAC's annual conference in which he stressed his commitment to Israel and pledged to "do everything in my power" to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

In Israel on Wednesday, Obama visited two of the country's most symbolically important places: the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem and the town of Sderot in southern Israel, which for years has been the target of rocket fire from Palestinian militants across the border in Gaza.

Those images will be important for the campaign, said Ira N. Forman, a former AIPAC political director who heads the National Jewish Democratic Council. "Pictures of Israel grab people's attention," he said.

So too will more discussion about Israel's security, said Berman, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "The most important question that Sen. Obama can ask is: Is Israel stronger today than it was when Bush took office?" he said, noting that McCain is offering little change in U.S. policy in the Middle East.

David Adelman, a Des Moines attorney who last year wrote the Obama campaign a concerned letter after Obama was quoted expressing sympathy for Palestinian suffering, said Wednesday that he believed the Israel visit would help sway many Jews. "I think they are getting a better sense of where Barack Obama stands," said Adelman, now an Obama supporter.

Democratic strategists also have expressed confidence that Obama will rally more of the Jewish community to his side by November. Jewish support for Kerry in 2004 and Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000 increased as the campaigns unfolded, polling data indicate.

But Obama's prospects for winning over more Jewish voters may depend as much on issues unconnected to Middle East policy.

Only 8% of Jewish voters listed Israel as one of the top two issues they will consider in deciding which presidential candidate to support, according to a recent poll for J Street, a Washington-based Jewish group advocating Middle East peace. In contrast, 55% said the economy would be the most important factor in their decision.


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