Monday, May 12, 2008

As he moves closer to winning the Democratic presidential nomination, it is becoming increasingly apparent that Barack Obama has a huge problem winning the trust of Jewish voters, and presumptive Republican nominee John McCain knows it. On Friday, Mr. McCain criticized Mr. Obama for advocating unconditional talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who last week called Israel a “stinking corpse” which is doomed to disappear. In October, Mr. Obama attacked then-Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton for supporting a nonbinding Senate resolution declaring Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization — which it manifestly is. (The resolution passed the Senate 76-22 in September, winning the votes of almost half of Senate Democrats.)

On Friday, Robert Malley, an Obama advisor, resigned from the senator’s campaign as reports surfaced that he had met with the terrorist group Hamas. Last month, Hamas political advisor Ahmad Yousef said on WABC Radio in New York that he hoped Mr. Obama would be elected president. Mr. McCain said Hamas would never want him to be president, “so if Mr. Obama is favored by Hamas, I think people can make judgments accordingly.”

Mr. Obama sternly rejected the Hamas endorsement, but the latest Gallup polls suggest he has a significant and growing problem in keeping Jewish voters in the Democratic fold. The latest Gallup polls show that in a contest with Mr. McCain, Mr. Obama would secure 61 percent of the Jewish vote to the Republican’s 32 percent. In 2004 and 2006 elections, by contrast, Jewish voters favored the Democratic Party by a 75 percent to 25 percent margin. This suggests that support for the Democratic Party standard-bearer among Jews could be approaching its lowest levels in decades. The Republicans’ best showing was achieved by Ronald Reagan in 1980, when he won 40 percent of the Jewish vote.

Jews comprise just 2 percent of the American population. But they could play a large role in a close election because they are geographically concentrated and are more likely than other groups to turn out to vote. States with large Jewish populations — such as California, New York, Florida and New Jersey — account for 128 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Illinois, Pennsylvania and Ohio also have large numbers of Jewish voters. Consider two states: Florida, a critical swing state, has 400,000 Jewish voters and Pennsylvania 200,000. In these states, a shift among Jews from one party to the other can determine the overall final result. This is part of the reason that Mrs. Clinton tried to position herself as a “centrist” in foreign affairs: voting in favor of the Iraq war in 2002 and talking tough about Iran. But she undermined her own credibility by stridently denouncing the war during this year’s Democratic primaries and staking out a position to the left of Mr. Obama on withdrawing troops from Iraq.

As for Mr. Obama, the Iran and Hamas issues won’t be going away. In the coming months, voters can look forward to pictures of Mr. McCain kissing the Western Wall during his March visit to Israel and the Republican Jewish Coalition running campaign ads in South Florida titled “I Used To Be A Democrat.”

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