Handicapping the 2008 Presidential Race

Just one year after the congressional elections, we are nearing the first caucuses and primaries. California votes on Feb. 5. While Jews are expected to vote for the Democratic nominee in large numbers, Republicans hope to cut into that margin, and also to compete for campaign donations.

For the Republican candidates, who must be conservative enough to win the nomination, the key to any chance of Jewish support will be to then “pivot” toward the center. Republicans are still loyal to their unpopular president and expect their potential nominees to support him. Democratic candidates, meanwhile, temper their opposition to the Iraq war with a hawkishness on Iran that provides some protection in a Jewish community attuned to Iran’s threat to Israel.

So let’s take a look at the top tier candidates in each party and how they might do with Jewish voters.

The Republicans

Rudy Guiliani

Former New York City mayor Guiliani has surprised everybody by his steady lead in national polls. He has built his campaign around his response to the Sept. 11 attacks. As mayor of New York, Guiliani did extremely well with mostly Democratic Jewish voters, who liked his law-and-order stance, his disdain for the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and his liberalism on gay rights, immigration and abortion. Orthodox Jews were particularly pro-Guiliani. His refusal to disavow his pro-choice position on abortion can only help him with Jewish voters if he gets the nomination.

He has major liabilities, however. In addition to his personal life and the indictment of his friend and ally Bernard Kerik, Guiliani has had to go far right to gain absolution for his social liberalism. That has meant giving full-throated support to Bush and maximum sway to a blustery authoritarian streak a mile wide. But what wins the confidence of the religious right might hurt him with Jewish voters.

Mitt Romney

Unlike Guiliani, Romney announced a nicely timed conversion from pro-choice to pro-life. Romney would start at a disadvantage with the heavily pro-choice Jewish community.

Romney has embraced the simplistic foreign policy mantra that has now entrenched itself on the Right, that the United States is surrounded by a global “Islamofascism” movement more powerful than Nazi Germany. Religiously tolerant Jewish voters will probably not be much bothered by Romney’s Mormon religion. Romney has strongly tied himself both to Israel and to confronting Iran. He remains close to former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Romney can gain some ground with the bipartisan health care plan that he helped pass as governor of Massachusetts. His plan presents a dilemma because it is much like Hillary Clinton’s plan. In the run-up to the nomination, Romney is distancing himself from his own plan and attacking Clinton’s as government-run health care. He is instead embracing the unpopular Republican position of health-care tax credits. But if became the nominee, he would be unique among Republicans in his ability to talk knowledgeably about health care, and could narrow the Democratic advantage on that issue. Once again, can he pivot?

John McCain

John McCain had great potential for support among Jewish voters. Stubbornly independent, willing to cross party lines in the Senate, an articulate voice on campaign finance reform (for which Jewish voters are a principal constituency) and an opponent of torture, McCain might have struck some gold with Jewish voters, despite his strong pro-life record. But McCain calculated that to win the nomination he had to embrace Bush. He has ended up the nowhere man of the campaign, tied to Bush’s most unpopular moves but not quite trusted by the right wing. He did not help himself with Jewish voters when he tried to appeal to the religious right by saying that the presidency should be held by a Christian.

Despite his support for the war, McCain remains the only foreign policy grownup in the Republican field. His friendship with Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) has built some good will with moderate and conservative Jews. McCain remains an appealing candidate should he manage to emerge from a relatively weak field.

Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee

Thompson and Huckabee are running as the true social conservatives, hardly a position designed to appeal to Jews, and each is still a factor in the race. Thompson’s sluggish campaign and lack of policy sophistication can be unnerving, especially to Jewish voters who admire well-informed and articulate candidates. Huckabee is a highly appealing personality, with the kind of color that stands out in a drab field. He may emerge from the pack and could reach the No. 2 spot on the ticket.

The Democrats

Hillary Clinton

The first female candidate with a serious chance of winning the White House, Clinton was once the right wing’s symbol of the ’60s “counter culture.” Now she is the least liberal Democrat in the race.

Some Jewish voters still harbor doubts about her pro-Israel credentials. In 1999, she kissed the wife of Yasser Arafat who had just given a speech criticizing Israel (Clinton said that the speech had not been translated). The Clintons were both treated with suspicion by pro-Israel organizations when the president pushed for a peace settlement at the end of his presidency. When she ran for the senate in New York in 2000, she was taking on the nation’s toughest Jewish audience.

According to Kristen Lombardi, writing in the Village Voice, though: “Among Jewish leaders, you’d have to search far and wide to find anyone who claims Clinton isn’t a friend of Israel.” That’s a far cry from her first race in 2000. Her foreign policy hawkishness, especially on Iran, has helped.

Out here in California, she is more vulnerable from Jews on the left, on the issue of the Iraq war and whether she is too hawkish in foreign policy. However, she is probably safer with Jewish voters being a hawkish Democrat than in flirting too much with the antiwar constituency, which sometimes concerns Jews on the issue of Israel.

Barack Obama

Writing in the Los Angeles Times in October, Ronald Brownstein pointed out that Obama is running the typical “reform” campaign in the Democratic primaries while Clinton is running the more traditional working-class campaign. That analysis helps explain both why Obama is running so well and getting such good media coverage, but also why he is having difficulty cutting into Clinton’s lead.