GOP’s Tough Task

The race for the Democratic presidential nomination has taken a fateful turn in the past several weeks. The rise — or re-emergence — of Sen.

John Kerry of Massachusetts, the decline of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and the withdrawal of Sen. Joe Lieberman make the quadrennial dream of Republicans that Jewish voters will vote Republican more difficult to achieve.

Historically, a majority of Jewish voters have voted Democratic in presidential elections. But sometimes, that majority weakens, as it did in 1972 and 1980. The Democrats nominated candidates George McGovern and Jimmy Carter, respectively, who were perceived, rightly or wrongly, as either weak on foreign policy or less than fully supportive of Israel.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, early polls indicated that a significant number of Jews might vote for President Bush’s reelection. To Republicans, the terrain looked promising.

The Dean and Lieberman campaigns both fit into the Republican playbook. While mostly Democrats, Jewish voters cover a wide swath ideologically, from the very liberal to the moderately conservative. From opposite sides, both Dean and Lieberman would have exposed that Democratic fault line.

Dean’s suggestion of a more “balanced” U.S. policy in the Middle East may have appealed to the most liberal Jews, but it opened up a gulf of mistrust with the more moderate Jewish Democrats. The White House could hardly restrain its glee at the thought of running against Dean, particularly among Jewish voters.

The Lieberman factor was more subtle. The conventional wisdom is that Democrats should nominate centrists. That certainly sounds like Lieberman. But Lieberman is so moderate, both ideologically and temperamentally, that he seemed more angry at Democratic liberals than at Bush. In a year that Democrats are building on a massive surge of anger at the Bush White House, soft centrism generated little interest among Democrats.

Had Lieberman emerged as a serious contender, he would have been the flip side of Dean, appealing to moderate and conservative Jews, while leaving liberals unhappy.

Instead, Democratic voters have given an imposing lead to Kerry, who is liberal enough to hold the left and moderate enough with his military background to contest the middle.

As extremely significant campaign donors, Jewish Democrats may find it easier to help Kerry than some of the other candidates. Only Dean and Kerry had the foresight and the resources to forgo public matching funds for the nomination phase. Clark and Edwards did not.

If candidates accept public funding, they also accept a limit on campaign spending. They may run out of money by the spring, and once they have spent their limit, they cannot raise or spend any more money until the convention in July.

During that period, the Bush campaign will be free to spend its more than $100 million reserve to attack the leading Democrat without response.

Dean and Kerry, however, can keep raising money up until the July convention, and either would be able to fight effectively until then.

Dean, however, has serious money problems. He ran through most of his $40 million-plus war chest to little avail in Iowa and New Hampshire, and may not look like a great investment. Kerry, by contrast, will be rolling in contributions.

There are still many pitfalls on the road for the Democratic front-runner and the eventual nominee, whomever that may be, when it comes to Jewish voters. The Democratic Party is a collection of many groups, whose attitude toward Israel varies.

President Bush offers full-throated support for Israel whenever possible, and the Democrats have to find ways to express their own support for Israel, even if it is built around different policy views than that of the White House.

The White House may have its own coalition problems to deal with. The most loyal voters in the Republican Party today are evangelical Christians. By some estimates, they support Republicans to a degree matched only by African American backing of the Democrats.

Because evangelicals have expressed an affinity for Israel in recent years, Bush has not had to make difficult choices while prospecting for Jewish votes.

Now Bush may have to make a choice between his hard-core conservative base and his hopes of reaching out to Jewish voters. All indications are that the Bush strategy from the start has been to energize his base, and with the Republicans hoping to center the campaign around their opposition to gay marriage and suspicion of “liberal intellectuals,” they are less likely to spend time worrying about socially liberal Jewish voters.

Between now and the election, the Middle East and domestic politics are likely to intrude in ways that matter deeply to Jewish voters, and both parties will have to be on their toes if they want to hold or win this critically important group.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at California State University, Fullerton. His column appears monthly.