Politics & Government

Can Obama hold on to Democrats' Jewish supporters?

WASHINGTON — When President Bush on Thursday compared some unidentified political opponents to Nazi appeasers, he seemed to be trying at least in part to woo Jewish voters who've signaled concerns about Barack Obama.

Those voters comprise sizable voting blocs in some key general-election states. Polls suggest that they may be reluctant to give the Illinois senator, if he's the Democratic Party presidential nominee, the same 3-to-1 majority that John Kerry rolled up over Bush in 2004.

Bush used the occasion of a speech before Israel's parliament, the Knesset, to compare contemporary calls to hold talks with terrorists to pre-World War II support for negotiating with Adolf Hitler. Obama has said that as president, he'd personally meet, without pre-conditions, with leaders of rogue nations such as Iran and Syria, which support terrorists, to try to advance U.S. interests.

"Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along," Bush said. "We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared, 'If I could only have talked to Hitler, all this may have been avoided.''' Bush was referring to Sen. William Borah of Idaho.

Obama took the comment as an attack on his views. He called the criticism "sad" and added that Bush "knows that I have never supported engagement with terrorists, and the president's extraordinary politicization of foreign policy and the politics of fear do nothing to secure the American people or our stalwart ally Israel."

Analysts took note of Obama's swift response, calling it another signal that he knows he has doubters in the Jewish community.

"No doubt about it," said Kevin Wagner, an assistant professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University in Southeast Florida, home to many Jewish retirees. More conservative, older Jewish voters tend to be suspicious of where Obama stands on Israel, he said.

Democratic presidential nominees have long counted on Jewish support. Ronald Reagan in 1980 got the biggest Jewish vote for any modern Republican, but even that was only 39 percent.

In 2004, Jewish voters gave Kerry an important boost in some states. He won New York, where Jews are 8 percent of the total and backed Kerry 4 to 1, and New Jersey, where 7 percent of voters are Jewish and gave Kerry a 3-to-1 margin. Though Kerry lost Florida, where about 5 percent of voters are Jewish, they gave him a 4-to-1 edge.

Obama hasn't shown that kind of strength in primaries. In New Jersey, rival Hillary Clinton got 63 percent support from Jewish voters. In Pennsylvania, her margin was about the same, and in Florida, she won 56 percent of the Jewish vote.

"Obviously, he does" have a perception problem, said Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, although Forman said Republicans are overreaching. "He has to continue to educate people about his voting record, which is a perfect one" on issues of paramount concern to Jews.

Obama's problems with some Jewish voters spring from many roots. Perhaps the most glaring is his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who made harsh statements critical of Israel and praised Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who once reportedly called Judaism a "gutter religion."

Obama suffers with some from that association, even though he's repeatedly rejected Wright's suggestion that America's support of Israel fueled the 9/11 attacks. Obama also has repudiated Farrakhan. And he has said that he wouldn't negotiate with Hamas, the radical Palestinian group.

The Illinois senator is also dogged by baseless rumors that he's a Muslim — he isn't, he's a Christian, but his middle name "Hussein" could be cause for concern among some.

Nevertheless, Obama has many Jewish supporters, campaign activists and staffers, from his chief strategist to a young man who manages logistics and luggage on the campaign trail. This spring Obama dropped in on a last-minute Seder organized by some Jewish staffers traveling over Passover.

Obama's voting record on Israel is as strong as Clinton's and McCain's, though his Senate career is shorter.

In February, at a question-and-answer session with Jewish leaders in Ohio, he promised to keep "an unshakeable commitment to the security of Israel" if elected and said he doesn't support the Palestinian idea of a right of return to their homeland, now Israel.

He called himself "a consistent denunciator of Louis Farrakhan," invited those in the group to ask Chicago Jews about his reputation and added that throughout his career he has tried "to bridge what was a historically powerful bond between the African-American and Jewish communities that has been frayed in recent years."

"If anyone is still puzzled about the facts, in fact I have never been a Muslim," he added.

At that meeting, Obama also blasted Bush's Middle East policies.

"I do not understand how anybody who is concerned about Israel's security and the threat of Iran could be supportive of George Bush's foreign policy," he said. "It has completely backfired. It is indisputable that Iran is the biggest strategic beneficiary of the war in Iraq."

Nonetheless, Obama's opponents are trying hard to raise doubts about his record.

"Why, when Barack Obama hears the word 'appeasement,' does he think it applies to him?" asked the Republican Jewish Council in a statement. "Why, when it comes to standing with Israel, is Barack Obama so defensive?"

Last month, presumptive Republican John McCain's campaign sent out a fundraising letter saying Obama's foreign policy plans "have even won him praise from Hamas leaders." It adds that the U.S. doesn't need "the kind of change that wins kind words from Hamas, surrenders in Iraq and will hold unconditional talks with Iranian President Ahmadinejad."

The letter was prompted by comments in the media from Hamas political adviser Ahmed Yousef. "We don't mind; actually we like Mr. Obama," Yousef said.

Obama led McCain among Jewish voters by 61-32 percent, according to an average of Gallup tracking polls in April. Still, it's clear that he can't take Jewish support for granted and that some Republicans are trying to narrow that gap.

Obama probably has more work to do.

"For a sitting president to say what Bush said is incendiary," said FAU's Wagner. "But this is a real vulnerable spot for Obama. If John McCain wants to associate himself with George Bush on anything, Israel policy is the place."

Related stories from McClatchy DC