The battle for Jewish votes in this fall's presidential campaign could center on two U.S. senators who once were allies, but now are in opposing camps. Both have seen their own presidential ambitions quashed, but are being mentioned for vice president.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman calls himself an Independent after a career as a Democrat. But, at least as far as presidential politics is concerned this year, he is solidly in the Republican camp as a leading supporter of Sen. John McCain. He has been particularly active in courting Jewish voters and contributors for the GOP candidate.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, the strong favorite of Jewish Democrats during this year's long primary season according to exit polls, ended her presidential campaign with a ringing endorsement of her rival from Illinois and assured thousands of cheering delegates at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington earlier this month that "Barack Obama will be a good friend of Israel."
Lieberman, perhaps the best-known Jewish politician in America and the 2000 Democratic candidate for vice president, who ran a brief campaign for president four years ago, has been saying much the same about his good friend, McCain, and has even offered to speak for him at the Republican National Convention.
Many Democrats were miffed at Lieberman for taking part in a conference call by McCain backers attacking Obama's AIPAC speech last week, and Obama reportedly let him know that personally in a conversation the next day on the Senate floor.
Obama will easily win a majority of Jewish voters this fall; the only question is the size of his margin. A Gallup Poll in April, before he sewed up the nomination, showed Obama getting about 61 percent of Jewish votes, compared to 75 percent for John Kerry four years ago. Hillary Clinton, in the same poll, was doing about five points better. McCain was between 27 percent and 32 percent, compared to George W. Bush's 25 percent in 2004.
Now that the Democratic primary campaign is over, Obama's numbers are expected to rise. How far may depend on the effectiveness of the two surrogates.
Some Obama followers feel that Clinton poisoned the well against him in the Jewish community, especially among older voters and women– her strongest supporters — and they are looking for her to keep those folks in the Democratic column. That will be especially important in Florida with its large Jewish population, but also in New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Lieberman will be deeply involved and working full-time for McCain, but it is unclear how much time Clinton will be spending campaigning for her party's ticket in the Jewish community, since Obama also needs her help among working-class whites and women generally.
Lieberman brings a high level of enthusiasm and years of close friendship with McCain, while Clinton and Obama just ended a long and sometimes acrimonious contest.
McCain and Lieberman will be going after swing Jewish voters by stressing the 3 I's — Israel, Iran and Iraq — which could be problematic, since most Jews have consistently opposed the Iraq war and, despite concerns about Iranian nuclear ambitions, show little enthusiasm for another war in the Persian Gulf.
Obama will be focusing on areas where he feels McCain is out of synch with most Jews: Social Security, health care, church-state separation, gay rights, reproductive rights, gun control and judicial nominations.
Obama's relative weakness with Jewish voters in recent polls reflected tough campaign attacks by McCain and Clinton partisans, but that was before he clinched the nomination. Barring unforeseen developments, most observers expect his Jewish support to increase as the process of healing a badly divided party begins in earnest — and Clinton may play a key role of that effort.
Political scientists continually debate the value of surrogates. The failure of Ronald Reagan to work for Gerald Ford in 1976 and Ted Kennedy to campaign for Jimmy Carter in 1980, and Al Gore's failure to utilize Bill Clinton in 2000 are cited as losing campaigns where surrogates could have made a big difference.
Hillary Clinton's job will be to assure her Jewish supporters that the greenhorn senator from Illinois is a trustworthy and loyal friend in both foreign and domestic policy, who needs and deserves their votes. Lieberman's message will be to go with the man you know; he's good for Israel, and that trumps all the other issues.
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist.