Washington Watch

Clark Looks for Jewish Money

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who jumped into the crowded Democratic ring last week, isn’t Jewish, but his Jewish roots could figure prominently in his strategy for winning the 2004 presidential nomination.

The reason: Clark, a latecomer to the race, needs lots of money — and fast.

“He has to raise a ton of money,” said a top Jewish Democrat this week. “And he has to avoid gaffes for the next few weeks so he can put together position papers. You look at the top 100 givers in the party, and a very high percentage of them are Jews. A lot of them have been sitting on the sidelines so far. So they’re ripe for the picking.”

But to do that picking, this source said, Clark has to demonstrate that he is a credible candidate with a good chance of beating President George W. Bush next November. And he has to demonstrate a sensitivity to the hot-button issues that have a big impact on pro-Israel campaign contributors — a lesson another surprise frontrunner, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, learned the hard way recently.

“He’s intelligent, he’s articulate but he’s fallen on his face in the first days of the campaign,” said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn. “He needs to be handled better; his learning curve has to be extremely steep. He doesn’t have the luxury of making mistakes.”

Clark will be pressed hard to explain his Mideast views in detail in the coming weeks; how he responds will have a significant impact on the flow of badly needed Jewish dollars, Kahn said.

Those views include a call for greater international involvement in solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and cautious endorsement of NATO peacekeepers for the region, both ideas that are regarded warily by most pro-Israel groups and vehemently opposed by some.

This week, the former NATO Supreme Commander and Democratic newcomer was burning up the phone-lines, touching base with potential contributors across the country. He was also aggressively working Capitol Hill, seeking endorsements — including endorsements from Jewish lawmakers.

He is also building a campaign machine that includes a number of former Clinton administration officials. On the Clark team so far: former National Service director Eli Segal, former Commerce secretary Mickey Kantor and Rep. Rahm Emmanuel (D-Ill.), a top White House aide during the Clinton years.

Clark is also basking in the glow of a successful fundraising forays to Hollywood, Silicon Valley and New York.

Clark reportedly hopes to raise up to $5 million before the end of the current reporting period next week, a total that would reinforce his standing as a serious candidate — and possibly convince some of his less-successful rivals to drop out.

“He needs money, he needs important backers and he needs something only he can provide: giving people an affirmative reason to support him,” said Benjamin Ginsberg, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist.

And that means courting Jewish campaign contributors who traditionally provide “the bulk of the money for Democratic candidates,” he said. “Because of that, I think he will rediscover his Jewish roots very quickly.”

In 1999 Clark revealed that while he grew up a Baptist and later converted to Catholicism, his father was Jewish.

“Our community doesn’t have a lot of generals,” Ginsberg said. If a general comes along and wants to be Jewish, who’s going to turn him away?”

Mixed News for Lieberman

The impending end of the quarter for campaign donations is touching off last-minute money blitzes in other Democratic presidential campaigns as well; the upcoming Federal Election Commission report card on contributions could prove critical for several.

This week supporters of Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), who continues to rank near the top in national polls, sent an urgent “Third Quarter Countdown” e-mail to potential contributors. The goal: to make sure the campaign “finishes the quarter with lots of momentum.”

The critical thing for Lieberman now: keeping up the appearance of momentum until after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, where he, Gen. Wesley Clark, Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.), Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) among others will slug it out.

“We have said from the beginning that Feb. 3 would be an important day for our campaign,” said campaign director Craig Smith in the e-mail to potential contributors. “This is the day we will start to win the nomination.”

That date marks the Arizona, Delaware and South Carolina primaries, among others, in which Lieberman is expected to run strong.

“He’s running an effective, steady, unspectacular race,” said a top Jewish politico here. “His strategy is clearly to hold until after New Hampshire and Iowa, when there could be utter confusion among the other frontrunners, and Joe will have his chance.”

Lieberman and several other Democratic contenders were buoyed by a new CNN poll showing them all gaining on or beating President Bush, whose job-approval ratings continue to sink in the face of job losses, the government budget crisis and mounting anarchy and terrorism in Iraq.

Less pleasing to the other Democratic candidates, including Lieberman: the fact that after only five days as an official candidate, Clark did better against Bush than any of them.

In the sample of 877 registered voters, 49 percent said they would vote for Clark, 46 for Bush, while the President beat Dean, Gephardt and Lieberman by slim margins.

Administration Accelerates Faith-Based

The Bush administration’s faith-based initiative may be bogged down in Congress, but it is on the fast-track inside the executive branch, where the president is intensifying his effort to use already-existing authority to expand government help for religious institutions.

But that hasn’t produced a bonanza for Jewish social service providers; in a series of grants announced this week, no Jewish groups were among the lucky recipients, although at least one applied.

On Monday the Bush cabinet convened to report back to the boss about progress in opening up government health and human service contracts to religious groups.

The administration also announced a series of new regulations lowering barriers for religious group participation in grant programs — changes that critics say will lead to the improper use of government money for things like proselytizing.

And the Department of Health and Human Services announced $30.5 million in grants to support 81 community groups and faith-based charities, and another $24 million for programs that received funding last year under the administration’s “Compassion Capital Fund.”

According to an analysis by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, regulatory changes announced by the administration will provide up to $20 billion to religious groups that operate substance and mental health service programs.

Under the Compassion Capital Fund, the list of grantees includes interfaith, community and Christian groups but no Jewish social service providers, despite the fact that at least one — the Orthodox Union — applied.

Nathan Diament, the OU’s Washington representative, said that shows the faith-based initiative “will not be a political patronage program. Given how supportive we’ve been of the faith-based program, we would have been a candidate if there had been any interest in using this for political payoffs.”

Richard Foltin, legislative director for the American Jewish Committee, which opposes much of the administration’s faith-based thrust, said there were no surprises at the White House this week.

“What we’re seeing is the administration following through on what has always been a priority,” he said.

But Foltin conceded that by shifting the focus from legislation to executive action, the administration has made things much harder for opponents.

Options for opponents include court action against individual faith based programs and public education, he said; legislative efforts to roll back some of the President’s actions, as proposed by several liberal lawmakers, are unlikely to advance in the GOP-controlled Congress.

The administration has not given up on Capitol Hill, but shifted the emphasis from sweeping faith-based legislation to “piecemeal” changes in legislation reauthorizing existing programs, Foltin said.

That includes efforts to remove provisions prohibiting employment discrimination by religious groups that use government money in programs such as Head Start.

But Orthodox groups applauded the acceleration of the administration’s faith-based effort.

“We welcome these developments that will lower the barriers that prevent religious groups from participating on an equal footing in administering social service programs,” said Abba Cohen, Washington representative for Agudath Israel of America. “We’re very pleased that the administration is steadfast in moving forward.”