Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama are going head to head for the money and backing of Jewish voters, trying to woo them by asserting their support for Israel and concern about Iran.

The senators held dueling receptions at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference Monday night even though neither formally addressed one of the most influential lobbying groups in the nation.

“I need your help,” Mrs. Clinton told the hundreds packed into her dessert-and-coffee reception Monday night after an AIPAC gala dinner.

In her brief remarks, Mrs. Clinton said lawmakers must “try to figure out how to exercise leverage to prevent [Iran] from becoming a nuclear power” and that the U.S. should “exert pressure” on the Iranian government and make sure sanctions are both clear and enforced.

“Israel’s freedom, Israel’s democracy must be protected,” Mrs. Clinton told the cheering crowd.

A few doors down, AIPAC attendees flooded an Obama reception but quickly left after he finished speaking, rushing to hear what the former first lady had to say.

Several AIPAC attendees said Mr. Obama appeals to them because of his anti-war stance — he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, while Mrs. Clinton voted to give President Bush war authority — but noted he remains an unknown entity on foreign relations compared with his top rival for the Democratic nomination for 2008.

Mr. Obama gave a major address earlier this month at the AIPAC policy conference in Chicago, outlining his positions on Israel.

“Our job is to never forget that the threat of violence is real. Our job is to renew the effort to help Israel achieve peace with its neighbors while remaining vigilant against those who do not share this vision,” he said at the March 3 conference.

“Our job is to do more than lay out another road map; our job is to rebuild the road to real peace and lasting security throughout the region.”

“That effort begins with a clear and strong commitment to the security of Israel, our strongest ally in the region and its only established democracy,” Mr. Obama said.

But some at AIPAC this week grumbled about comments the Illinois senator made about Palestinians recently in Iowa.

“Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people,” Mr. Obama said, according to the Des Moines Register. “If we could get some movement among Palestinian leadership, what I’d like to see is a loosening up of some of the restrictions on providing aid directly to the Palestinian people.”

In the same appearance, Mr. Obama insisted that Israel must remain an ally and said the U.S. has a “huge strategic stake in bringing about a peaceful resolution to the conflict,” between the two nations, according to the Register.

The threat of a nuclear Iran and the prolonged war in Iraq has many AIPAC members worried and makes Jewish voters even more important.

“Never before have my interests as a supporter of Israel and my interests as an American been so closely aligned,” said Lloyd P. Levin, a mortgage broker from Milwaukee. “No thinking American wants Iran to become a nuclear power.”

Though Mrs. Clinton won Monday’s popularity contest, the Democrats don’t have the market on this voting bloc.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani tops a list compiled by an Israeli newspaper, ranking above all the other 2008 candidates for his stance on Jewish issues, and the Republican is a favorite candidate among Jewish voters.

“Israel and the security of Israel is pivotal and it will have a direct impact on the security of the United States,” said Julie Brown, a delegate to AIPAC from Los Angeles. “The candidates recognize the importance of that and the impact the Jewish vote will have on the election.”

Miss Brown predicted Jewish voters will be interested in Mr. Giuliani because of his liberal social views and strong record on Israel. He is friends with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Democrat Fran Fine said she isn’t 100 percent sold on Mrs. Clinton because she likes Mr. Obama and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., but noted: “I liked what I heard from her husband.”

“This country was very safe when Bill Clinton was president, and their views on foreign policy are the same when it comes to Israel,” said Ms. Fine, a lawyer from Henderson, Nev.

Many attendees said they were familiar with the Clinton position and wanted to see a new face.

“I’ve been to this thing four times and I’ve never seen this kind of electricity,” real estate lawyer Jerry Slusky said of Mr. Obama. “Hillary is OK, but she’s no rock star.”

Mr. Slusky made his observation before dinner, before security had to turn away overflow crowds from the Clinton reception owing to a fire hazard.

The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, in a feature on the 2008 candidates, has Mr. Giuliani at the top, followed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Republican Sen. John McCain, Mrs. Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore, Sen. Sam Brownback and with Mr. Obama last, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Mr. Brownback, Kansas Republican, also had a big draw as the only Republican hosting a reception at AIPAC Monday. Several praised him as strong on Israel, and noted his appeal to Orthodox Jews.

Mr. Biden, Delaware Democrat, told his reception attendees: “We need Israel in the Middle East as much as Israel needs us,” and praised the country for being a democratic beacon.

Jewish voters are estimated to be 2 to 3 percent of the electorate.

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