Harold Levenson and Milt Salamon, a pair of World War II veterans, arrived more than two hours early to Abington High School on Oct. 3 in order to get as close as possible to the speaker's podium. The two were part of an estimated crowd of 6,000 that turned out to hear Barack Obama's first speech in the area since June.
As high school students slammed on the bleachers and chanted as if it were a football game, the two older Willow Grove residents rested their backs against a temporary barricade. Each explained that his mind had been made up long ago, and the two weren't there to be swayed but to see, up close, a candidate they dubbed "historic."
"I'm a lifelong Democrat and I don't like the policies of the Republican Party," said Levenson, who served as a tail gunner in the European campaign. He acknowledged that some may fear that Obama's commitment to Israel may be less than total, but he doesn't buy it.
"Both parties are for Israel, no matter what," said Levenson. "We need Israel, and Israel needs us."
Levenson is clearly among the majority of Jews who identify with Obama and the Democratic Party. But this year, there seem to be more undecided Jews than in the past. According to the American Jewish Committee's survey of American Jewish Opinion, the number stood at 13 percent, as of Sept. 21. (In the 2004 survey, 5 percent reported being undecided in the presidential contest.)
Obama's relatively poor showing among Jews in April's Pennsylvania Democratic primary — resulting, in part, to questions about his relationship with his longtime pastor and the presence of several key advisers who some voters deemed were less than friendly to Israel — had left the McCain campaign feeling confident that the Arizona senator might exceed expectations among Jewish voters in the Keystone state.
But the Obama campaign has been working overtime to reach out to undecided Jewish voters, those who might be nervous about the candidate's lack of foreign policy experience or his expressed desire to open up talks with Iran.
Polls have Obama increasing his lead among all voters in Pennsylvania. An Oct. 2 survey by the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion showed the Democrat leading McCain 50 percent to 41 percent. The latest Franklin & Marshall Poll showed Obama holding a seven-point lead.
This past week, multiple Obama surrogates appeared in Jewish venues throughout the greater Philadelphia area to address the senator's Middle East policy approach. On Oct. 2, Anthony Lake, a top foreign policy adviser and former national security adviser to Bill Clinton, spoke to an audience of about 150 at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park.
On Oct. 5, U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) and former New York City Mayor Ed Koch — who backed President George W. Bush in 2004 — spoke in favor of Obama at several venues, including Congregations of Shaare Shamayim in Northeast Philadelphia, the Kaiserman JCC in Wynnewood and Martin's Run in Media.
And U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and U.S. Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), who are brothers, made their pitches at Shir Ami-Bucks County Jewish Congregation in Newtown.
U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) spoke in favor of McCain at a campaign event in Ardmore last week, but no specific Jewish events have been announced as yet, other than an Oct. 16 candidates forum at Main Line Reform Temple-Beth Elohim, where representatives for both contenders are slated to participate. (McCain himself has spoken in the region numerous times since the spring.)
But the Republican Jewish Coalition has continued its heavy advertising campaign to undermine Obama's standing in the Jewish community.
"There is now four weeks left, and this is the time when undecideds start to make up their minds," said Zach Friend, an Obama spokesman. He acknowledged that the McCain campaign and the RJC have succeeded in raising concerns about Obama in segments of the Jewish community.
"These concerns are unfounded, and these surrogates are great messengers for that message," said Friend.
Speaking at Keneseth Israel, Lake — himself a recent convert to Judaism — stated that Obama would never compromise Israel's security and he does, indeed, consider the Iranian nuclear threat an "urgent problem."
Lake, who teaches international relations at Georgetown University, argued that Obama's preferred policy of diplomatic engagement would better serve American and Israeli interests in the region. Specifically, he advocated for diplomatic talks with both Iran and Syria, two nations currently considered state sponsors of terrorism by the U.S. government.
"It is because it is such a serious problem that we need to do something different. The fact is that the path we have been on hasn't worked," said Lake. "If we are going to get the Europeans and the Security Council to put much tougher sanctions on the table … then we have to join with the Europeans. And as five former secretaries of state have said, we need to get into direct negotiations, without preconditions."
Most in the K.I. audience were clearly in the Obama camp — some sported campaign buttons that spelled Obama in Hebrew — and did not need much convincing. But Larry Buchsbaum, a 78-year-old Wyncote resident and McCain supporter, pressed Lake over Obama's opposition to the 2007 Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which passed the Senate with overwhelming support.
That amendment labeled the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. Lake said that Obama actually holds the same view, but he opposed the amendment because he believed it would have offered a green light to the Bush administration to use Iranian support of Shi'ite militia groups in Iraq as a pretext for starting a military operation against Iran.
"This was about our policy towards Iraq — and not to allow the Iraqi dog to wag the Iranian tail," said Lake.
But Buchsbaum — a veteran of Israel's War of Independence — was one voter who could not be swayed. He stood up and declared that "a vote for Obama is a vote for a nuclear Iran."