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As Race Tightens, State Finds Itself in the Loop

March 13, 2008 By:
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Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) at their last debate before the Ohio primary in Cleveland
In a scenario that seemed unlikely just a few months ago, the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama race for the Democratic presidential nod now has all the earmarks of becoming the wildest political circus in recent memory. Both campaigns have begun barnstorming across Pennsylvania in anticipation of the state's April 22 primary, which may or may not decide the outcome.

As the candidates and their supporters get set for a six-week ground war, the sides are also honing their pitches to an influential, if not sizable, demographic: namely, Jewish voters.

And, as usual in tight, statewide elections, the Philadelphia suburbs may prove to be the most coveted prize on the Keystone State's political battle map -- with Obama expected to carry Philadelphia and Clinton expected to garner broad support in large swaths of the state.

That prospect has led some to worry that the increasingly rancorous tone of the campaign could spill over into the politically active Jewish community, where tensions seem to be escalating, especially when it comes to issues or comments the candidates have made regarding Israel.

"I really hope that the campaigns themselves will not try to make Israel a divisive issue within the community," said Burt Siegel, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, which is planning to hold a candidate's forum some time before April 22.

"Even if the campaign doesn't do that, advocates and supporters certainly will," predicted Siegel.

Mark Alderman, for one, thinks that Israel should be off the board -- or, at least, way down on the list of topics -- when Jewish primary voters weigh their options. The Bryn Mawr resident and member of Obama's National Finance Committee argued that both candidates have equally strong positions vis-à-vis Israel, and that voters should base their decisions on a range of other issues.

"To me, it is not a choice that should be made based on a position of Jewish issues and commitment to Israel. The decision should be made based on who will be the best president of the United States," said Alderman, who was a staunch supporter of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004. He only decided to back Obama when Kerry announced early last year that he wouldn't seek the 2008 nomination. (Kerry has endorsed Obama.)

"We should be talking about the war, the economy, ethics and everything else -- including Israel," said Alderman, a Center City lawyer, who added that "if Obama can win here, I think it will wrap up the nomination for him."

On the other side, Mark Aronchick, an influential Clinton supporter and organizer, said that Obama has to "play catch up" in the Jewish community. He argued that Clinton's stances on the Middle East are well-known, while Obama's -- despite the Illinois senator's repeated attempts to express pro-Israel sentiments and allay concerns over several of his choices for advisers -- are still unclear.

"I know where she stands. I know she fully understands Israel's right to self-defense -- to protect Ashkelon, to protect Netivot," said Aronchick, who serves as Pennsylvania's representative to the Democratic National Committee. "She gets it, she understands the reason for the fence, she understands that Hamas and Hezbollah are terrorist organizations."

While much attention will be paid to the Jewish demographic, it's not clear how pivotal a role these voters have played in previous contests or will play in Pennsylvania, one of the last major battlegrounds before the contests wrap up in June. It's highly possible that neither candidate will garner a clear-cut victory by the time the Democratic National Convention rolls around in late August, and that sort of development could give insiders like Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell an outsized role in choosing the nominee.

Jews account for roughly 2.3 percent of Pennsylvanians, with an estimated 284,875 residents, according to the National Jewish Democratic Council. While neither the NJDC nor the Pennsylvania Democratic Party keeps tabs on the number of registered Jewish Democrats, it's likely that Jews account for more than 2.3 percent of registered Democrats statewide.

According to the latest American Jewish Committee Survey of American Jewish Opinion, 58 percent of respondents self-identified as Democrats, while 15 percent considered themselves Republicans (although according to widely cited 2006 exit polls, more than 85 percent of Jews backed Democratic candidates).

After pivotal wins in Texas and Ohio, Clinton also has clout in Pennsylvania. One is that she enjoys the overwhelming support of the state's political brass and Democratic apparatus.

While Rendell is clearly her most high-profile cheerleader in the state, she's also got the backing of numerous elected officials, including Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and District Attorney Lynne Abraham; U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-District 13); and U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D-District 7).

And while the state party and the well-organized Montgomery County Committee are officially neutral, Marcel Groen, chair of the Montgomery Committee and one of the state's superdelegates, is actively backing Clinton.

"I think she's a known quantity, she has experience, she has a history of supporting Jewish causes," said Groen, a longtime member of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park.

As designated superdelegates, both Schwartz and Groen said that they would support Clinton, but wouldn't rule out backing Obama if the lawmaker defies expectations -- which he has several times -- and carries the state.

Alderman, the Obama supporter, insists that it's about convincing voters, not racking up endorsements or superdelegates. In fact, Clinton won Massachusetts despite the fact that the Democratic governor and two senators stumped for Obama.

"It's an advantage. We would love for the governor to change his mind, but that's not going to happen," acknowledged Alderman.

A handful of politicians are sticking their necks out for Obama, including U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-District 2), U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-District 8) and Beth Sholom Congregation member State Rep. Josh Shapiro (D-District 153.)

Shapiro predicted that Obama's popularity with younger voters will prove indispensable.

The Young and Not-So-Restless
To shift that young vote elsewhere, former first daughter Chelsea Clinton visited the University of Pennsylvania on March 5 -- the day after her mother carried three of four contests -- to help drum up enthusiasm among college students.

"I hope you don't get tired of seeing my family because I have a feeling we'll be here a lot over the next few weeks," the 28-year-old told several hundred students who'd gathered for an outdoor rally. Her father, former President Bill Clinton, visited Delaware County two days later, and the senator herself was expected to headline a March 11 rally at Temple University. As of press time, Obama was slated to speak March 11 in Bucks County.

Some in the Penn crowd clearly identified themselves as Clinton supporters, including Jeffrey Frank, a 22-year-old Jewish student from Newport News, Va. "I'm just more of an issue-and-results-oriented person," said Frank, who voted in the Virginia primary.

Others said they were just curious -- or were, in fact, Obama supporters.

Sure enough, that same day, the membership of the Penn Democrats voted overwhelmingly to offer Obama an endorsement and their assistance.

Lauren Burdette, president of Penn Democrats, observed that "the wave of youth participation in this election can partly be drawn to Obama's fresh approach to politics."

Stay tuned -- it's six weeks and counting. 

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