The US race starts here
Jewish community debates which presidential hopeful best serves its interests
WITH FORMER first lady Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton declaring her interest, the race for the United States 2008 presidential elections is becoming clearer — and so are the choices facing the American Jewish community.
While Jewish organisations are refraining from taking stands on political races, many in the community are already gearing up to take an active part on the campaigns of any of the almost two dozen candidates fielded by both main parties. Although the estimated 5.5 million-strong community makes up a mere two per cent of the population, American Jews are known for their high turnout rate at the ballots and play an important role in raising funds for political candidates. Exact figures are not available, but political analysts estimate that Jews are responsible for at least 50 per cent of the Democrats’ campaign money and more than a quarter of the money which is raised for Republican candidates.
More than half of American Jews define themselves as Democrats, a quarter as Independents and the rest as Republicans. As such, the Democratic candidate list is of special interest. “Based on the last elections, when 87 per cent of the Jews voted for Democratic candidates, and on Bush’s dismal approval ratings, the whole country is looking much more towards the Democrats than the Republican candidates,” says Democratic consultant Matt Dorf.
Hillary Rodham Clinton is a familiar face in Jewish America and enjoys great support from Jewish activists. As a senator representing the state of New York — with two million Jews, the largest community in the US — Mrs Clinton has established significant relations with Jewish voters and donors and would probably be American Jewry’s first choice. The former first lady holds strong credentials on issues relating to Israel and global security and is considered a centrist. In her years at the White House and in the Senate, she led pro-Israel legislation efforts, among them the drive to have the Israeli Magen David Adom accepted into the International Red Cross.
At present, the main challenger Mrs Clinton faces is Illinois Senator Barack Obama, a first-term politician. He is popular within the party and among young voters due to his personal charisma and the non-political agenda he is offering.
Jewish leaders are scrambling to learn more about Mr Obama’s views on foreign policy. A staunch critic of the Iraq war, he has expressed mainstream views on other Middle East issues and last summer supported a resolution backing Israel during the Lebanon war. Mr Obama was born to a Muslim father but grew up as a Christian, and Jewish activists have been impressed by his attempts to reach out to the community.
Other possible Democratic candidates — among them John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Al Gore and John Kerry — are also viewed positively.
“All the major announced candidates have long-standing good relations with the Jewish community and the Jewish voters,” says Mr Dorf. “No one has emerged yet as a leader among the Jewish voters.”
On the Republican side, pro-Israel activists point out that both leading possible candidates — Senator John McCain and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani — have a very strong record on Israel. Mr McCain, who spent five years as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam, is a foreign-affairs hawk who is now calling for a further increase of forces in Iraq and a tough line toward Iran. Mr Giuliani, whose term as mayor was shaped by the 9/11 attacks, is seen as one who can understand the issue of Palestinian terror.
On domestic issues, Jewish voters tend to support Democrats more than Republicans, mainly due to their support of civil rights and social legislation. Recent years have shown a very slight tendency among American Jews to favour a Republican candidate if stronger than the Democrat alternative on issues relating to Israel’s security and wellbeing.
Democratic hopefuls: Hillary Rodham Clinton (left) with leadership rival Barack Obama