With the GOP looking ahead to its April 24 presidential primary in Pennsylvania, President Barack Obama's re-election campaign officially kicked off its Philly Jewish outreach efforts by convening a Main Line meeting of roughly 30 Jewish Democratic insiders.
Ira Forman, a former director of the National Jewish Democratic Council who is heading up Jewish outreach for the campaign, met earlier this month at a private home with a group that included U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, whose district includes parts of Montgomery County and Philadelphia, as well as State Sen. Daylin Leach, also of Montgomery County.
According to several attendees, the focus of the meeting was no big surprise: countering Republican assertions that Obama's Middle East policies have been detrimental to the Jewish state.
The meeting served as a logistical planning session. Attendees discussed serving as surrogate speakers for the campaign at Jewish events, as well as launching a media effort. Participants were also briefed on more general developments within the campaign.
Many of Obama's Jewish supporters expect the fight to be a tough one, even more bruising than four years ago, when Obama faced doubts from the Jewish community about his support for Israel but wound up capturing 78 percent of the Jewish vote on Election Day.
Leach, a Jewish lawmaker, said he thinks Obama has the potential to improve on the 78 percent mark, especially if his supporters in the Jewish community highlight his accomplishments.
"We have to go out and explain that the administration is the best friend that Israel has had in the White House, certainly since Harry Truman," said Leach, a member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, who plans to speak on behalf of Obama during the campaign.
"President Obama, on every single issue, has had Israel's back over the last four years."
Though a Republican presidential candidate hasn't won Pennsylvania since 1988, it's still very much a battleground state and the Pennsylvania suburbs always make for an intense theater. Jews make up about 3 percent of the state's population but typically vote in disproportionately high numbers.
Republicans have been anxious to bring the debate on Obama's Middle East policies to Jewish voters. During the bruising 2010 midterm elections — which saw intense scrutiny of Democratic Senate candidate Joe Sestak's Israel record — Republican strategists said that the real focus on the Jewish state would come when Obama faced the voters again.
Clearly, some long-running themes will be returning to the campaign season. Democrats will argue that Israel shouldn't be used as a wedge issue and Republicans will argue that it already is.
The Republican Jewish Coalition — which has an active office in Philadelphia and has organized a number of events in the past few months — recently jumped on a February Gallop Poll that showed that 80 percent of Republicans sympathize more with Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians while 57 percent of Democrats and Independents hold the same view.
Many in the GOP, including the candidates themselves, argue that Obama placed undue pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians and that the administration's response to the Iranian nuclear threat has been insufficient. They also highlight the frosty relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
William Wanger, president of the Republican Jewish Coalition's local chapter, predicted the Obama campaign will have a hard time convincing pro-Israel voters. From focusing on the settlements to outlining specific borders on which to base negotiations, Obama's policies have proved disastrous for Israel,Wanger said.
"In my view, President Obama's words, actions and policies have moved the Middle East away from peace, and closer to war," said the attorney. "His claim to be Israel's best friend ever would be laughable if it wasn't said by him with such seriousness."
During the Main Line meeting, held at the home of Obama supporters Gary and Nancy Gordon, Forman reiterated some major talking points, according to several people who were there. One is that the Obama administration has increased military aid and cooperation to Israel to unprecedented levels. The talking points also note that the administration has vetoed numerous anti-Israel resolutions in the United Nations Security Council, worked to rescue Israeli diplomats trapped in Egypt and has rejected the policy of containment vis-a-vis Iranian nuclear ambitions.
"We focused on how to combat what we know is going to be a lot of unfair and inaccurate accusations," said Burt Siegel, the retired director of the local Jewish Community Relations Council. "Obviously, there are a number of people in the Jewish community who are not going to vote for him" and will "find a reason not to trust him."
Clo Ewing, an Obama campaign spokeswoman, said that Forman also highlighted the fact that Netanyahu, in his address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said that United States and Israel are cooperating more than ever.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell wasn't at the meeting, but was quick to weigh in on the Obama debate. At a March 26 Center City gathering of black and Jewish leaders organized by a nonprofit group known as the Idea Coalition, he was asked if Jewish antipathy toward the president contained a tinge of racism.
Absolutely not, said Rendell, an influential Democrat. "Rather, it is because he speaks the truth," unlike most American politicians who, he said, "shy away from telling Jewish voters what really needs to be done.
"Israel needs to be ready to negotiate and give things up," Rendell said. "There is no question that is the only chance for long-term peace. A lot of American Jews don't want to hear that. He didn't pander on that."
Siegel said he fears that Republicans will try to convince many liberal Jews to stay home on Election Day if they can't support a conservative. The job of ardent Obama supporters, he said, is to articulate why Obama is no better or worse on Israel than whomever his Republican opponent turns out to be, but that the president will be much better for the United States.
Jill Zipin, a Democratic committeewoman from Horsham who is also active in the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said that after all this time, there are Jews who think that Obama doesn't feel, in his kishkes, a love for the state of Israel.
Some Jews, said Zipin, just think Obama is wrong on Israel and "don't care what the facts are."