Kerry’s Lead Alters GOP Jewish Strategy

More and more, it looks as though the precipitous plunge of former Vermont governor Howard Dean will deny the Republicans what they wanted most this year: a liberal Democratic patsy for President Bush to trounce on Nov. 2.

The rise of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) as the Democratic front-runner, with Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) as a respectable second, will alter a lot of plans in Bush-Cheney re-election headquarters, and that includes plans for harvesting Jewish votes. Kerry’s rise means an even more targeted Jewish GOP strategy, combined with an ongoing effort to pry Jewish campaign contributors loose from the Democrats.

It’s important to note at the outset that the GOP was never planning to mount an all-out offensive to win Jewish votes nationwide for the simple reason that with relatively few Jewish votes in play, the results would not justify the costs.

Almost every analyst agrees that Bush, benefiting from his unusually close relations with the current Israeli government and his leadership in the war on terror, will fare much better among Jewish voters than he did in 2000, when he won a paltry 19 percent of the vote. But almost no analyst, including top GOP strategists, believes he has a chance to do much better than 30-35 percent.

That’s a significant increase, with the potential to have a critical impact in a handful of states. But it’s hardly the political revolution that some pundits have predicted.

Many Republicans believe Kerry will cut into those predicted gains. Kerry, with a solidly pro-Israel record in the Senate, is expected to bring back to the Democrats some Jewish swing voters who may have been drifting to the GOP. That drift, most analysts say, would have been the greatest if Howard Dean had been the Democratic front-runner.

Dean quickly retreated from his September demand for a more balanced U.S. approach to the Middle East, but the damage was done. Such statements made him a prime target of the Jewish right, and his positions gave some middle-of-the-road Jews who put Israel high on their list of political priorities the jitters.

Kerry has not been a pro-Israel leader, but he has voted consistently for the positions advocated by the pro-Israel lobby. In addition, he has the aura of experience that leads many Jews in the political center to believe he won’t try to shake up U.S. policy in the region.

The dramatic change in the Democratic race will reinforce this year’s Jewish-GOP strategy, which will be a limited and very focused one.

Many Jews are concentrated in states where the president is unlikely to run well, and where even a significant Jewish shift is unlikely to make any real difference. That includes Maryland, New York and possibly California.

In a few other states, Bush is expected to do well in what could be very close votes — and big Jewish populations there are very much in play and very much desired by the Republicans. Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio are the states most frequently cited by GOP strategists.

The plan is obvious: focus on Jewish voters in those few swing states where the Jewish vote could make a real difference. In the rest, rely simply on cadres of Jewish Republicans and groups such as the Republican Jewish Coalition, as well as Bush’s reputation as a friend and supporter of Ariel Sharon, to produce gratifying but modest gains.

The GOP approach to Jewish voters in those targeted states will be equally narrow. It will start and end with Israel and terrorism. The president will be portrayed as the best friend Israel ever had in the White House and the leader most capable of waging a sustained, effective war against terrorism.

Republicans understand that mainstream Jews are simply not going to line up with them on domestic issues, especially the anti-government, anti-social welfare and faith-based approaches that the Bush campaign will have to ratchet up to please its conservative base.

At the same time, party activists say they will intensify their ongoing effort to pry more Jewish campaign donors from the Democrats. This is a win-win proposition for the GOP. The extra money is nice for the party, but even nicer is denying it to the Democrats, who are much more dependent on Jewish givers.

The Republicans understand the growing gap within the Jewish community, with community leaders and big political givers generally more conservative than the overall Jewish population. That represents a universe of opportunity for the GOP, and party strategists are already exploiting it.

The Jewish vote, itself, is changing much more slowly. The Republicans see a positive trend in their direction, but it will be years before they can even hope for Jewish majorities in most elections. Major impediments remain to their recruitment of Jews, starting with the GOP love affair with the Christian right.

That relationship may win the approval of Orthodox activists, but polls continue to show most American Jews fear the religious right and see it as a political adversary, not an ally.

Where Will Backers of Lieberman Go?

The withdrawal of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) has left many Jewish fundraisers and donors without a candidate and has sparked a new round of fundraising calls and solicitations.

Much of the discussion focuses on Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who has emerged as the front-runner after the first round of caucuses and primaries. Like Lieberman, Kerry is a political veteran who has cultivated deep ties with the Jewish community both in and out of his home state.

However, there is talk that some pro-Israel backers will look to Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), a relative newcomer to the political scene, believing that he would take a more pro-Israel stance. There also is some speculation that Lieberman backers, supportive of some of the lawmaker’s more conservative positions, may consider supporting President Bush.

There is no empirical data on the amount of Jewish money in Democratic politics, because the Federal Elections Committee does not ask for a contributor’s religion. By all accounts, however, Jewish donors have played a significant role in bankrolling Democratic operations.

Many of those who backed Lieberman are expected to assess their next moves soon.

"I don’t think all of the Jewish money will go to one of the candidates; it will go to the best candidate based on the individual contributor’s thinking," said Marvin Lender, a member of Lieberman’s campaign board, who raised funds in the Jewish community. "I think that Jews are not single-issue voters and continuously will look for the best candidate."

Many of the major political players in Democratic politics, including prominent Jews, gave large donations to Lieberman and other candidates. Others have given small donations to numerous hopefuls and may now choose one candidate to whom they will give the maximum donation.

Under new campaign finance laws, donors can give up to $2,000 to a single candidate and up to $37,500 total for candidates for president, the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Lonnie Kaplan, a Lieberman fundraiser in New Jersey and past president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), suggested that many of Lieberman’s backers would pause before backing another candidate.

"People will look at two things: Where do they stand in terms of issues of Israel’s security, and is there still a race?" he said.

Some believe Kerry has the race sewn up. That might lead some Jewish donors, who are pragmatic and want to be part of a winning team, to give to him, but others may feel their donations are therefore less necessary.

Alan Solomont, a fundraiser for Kerry in the Jewish community, said there would not be a specific push for Jewish money right now, but that the campaign would continue to make inroads in the community.

Some supporters of Israel say Kerry has a solid voting record on Mideast issues, but there are lingering concerns that as president, he might pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, as former President Bill Clinton did.

That’s likely to throw some support toward Edwards, who placed well in Iowa and may get a bounce from his victory Tuesday in South Carolina. Lender said that Gen. Wesley Clark — who has Jewish roots — may find that it helps him raise Jewish money, though his campaign is struggling.

Little of the Lieberman support is expected to go to former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. Dean had poor showings in both Iowa and New Hampshire and has been hurt in the Jewish community by e-mails highlighting misstatements advocating a more "even-handed" U.S. policy between Israel and the Palestinians. In addition, Lieberman campaigned as the anti-Dean candidate, and it’s unlikely that many of his supporters would make such a dramatic shift of allegiance.

However, Steve Grossman, the national co-chairman of the Dean campaign and a former AIPAC president and Democratic National Committee chairman, said he believes damage control efforts following the e-mail campaign could result in new Jewish donations, if Dean regains momentum in the next two weeks.

"There will be a considerable number of fundraisers who are Jewish, particularly those who have been close to Al Gore, who very much like and respect what Howard Dean has done to energize the Democratic Party," Grossman said. "Those people will take a hard look at Howard Dean but will want to see the Dean campaign regain momentum from a political standpoint between now and the Wisconsin primary on Feb. 17."

Kaplan, the Lieberman fundraiser, said he believed some backers would give a second look to Bush, rather than support a different Democratic challenger.

"After the Democrats have nominated a candidate, people in the Jewish community will look at the two candidates," Kaplan said. "Many Democrats who are Joe Lieberman supporters will compare the nominee to President Bush."

But Solomont said he believed that most of Lieberman’s backers would stay in the Democratic Party.

"Jewish Democrats, although they have a relationship with Joe Lieberman, have a more strongly held desire to defeat George W. Bush," he said.