WYNDHAM, N.H. — The John Edwards presidential campaign had a problem.
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Set to announce the appointment of former Rep. David Bonior as campaign manager in a few days, Edwards' strategists began to realize that the Michigan Democrat's strong support for Palestinians while he was in Congress could hurt Edwards among American Jews.
And if Jewish voters started to get nervous about the former senator from North Carolina, a lot of dollars could be at stake.
So before the December announcement, Bonior started making calls to influential American Jewish leaders, including some members of Congress, and to political donors, according to people familiar with the effort. Bonior assured the leaders he would not be involved in Middle East policy and said his appointment did not suggest any changes in Edwards's positions on Israel. But many Jewish leaders were still angry that their input was sought only after the decision had been made.
The move added Edwards to the list of Democratic presidential candidates whose support for Israel, while strong, has blemishes. Some of the leading White House candidates don't have long congressional voting records with which to assess their support for Israel, so some Jewish voters are using other indicators to gauge them, such as whom the candidates are associating with and how often they talk about Middle East issues when they aren't speaking in front of a catered kosher spread.
Clinton, Giuliani gain some early support
Thus far, many Jewish Democrats have rallied behind Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had to overcome doubts fueled by her embrace of the wife of then-Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat in 1999. And although former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is beloved by many Jews for his engagement on Israel, many influential Jewish Republicans have not taken sides in what they view as a wide-open GOP race.
Jews represent less than 2 percent of the American electorate, but their support is disproportionately important. A higher percentage of Jews vote than the general public and many are active political donors. This time around, they could play an even larger role in both the primary and general elections.
Rate candidates' positionsHistorically, Jews have lent most of their support to Democrats and to liberal causes. But as more Republicans have embraced Israel and some Jewish voters have turned their focus to fiscal discipline, the GOP has been gaining in the Jewish community in recent years.
Some younger and more-religious Jews have also embraced Republican ideals. President Bush garnered about 25 percent of the Jewish vote in 2004, up from 19 percent four years earlier. Jewish support was seen as helpful in winning electoral votes for Republicans in Ohio and Florida.
In 2008, their votes could help in the primaries because several states with large Jewish populations -- including California, Florida, and New York -- will vote on or before February 5. That's why Democrats have been actively pursuing Jewish supporters and donors.
The Clinton campaign is seen by many Jewish leaders as the most engaged and organized, and a lot of support has already coalesced around her. "The perception is, she's going to win," said a Jewish official who is not aligned with a campaign and spoke on condition of anonymity. "So they, like any other group, want to be with the winning team and want to be there early."
But Clinton has baggage. She raised eyebrows throughout the Jewish community in 1999 with her embrace of Suha Arafat moments after the Palestinian made derogatory remarks about Israel. Clinton said she was listening to the speech -- given in Arabic -- through an English interpreter and did not understand what Arafat was saying.
Clinton also has to deal with some Jews' doubts about her husband's Middle East record. Many of them praise Bill Clinton's efforts at the end of his second term to bring Israelis and Palestinians together, but others say that he pressured Israel to offer too much.
But advisers in the Jewish community say that Clinton has said and done the right things since being elected to the Senate in 2000, including leader the effort in Congress to have the International Red Cross recognize the Israeli branch, Magen David Adom. "She hugged Arafat's wife, but things have evolved with the Palestinians," a Jewish official said. "And she has built a relationship with the Jewish community in New York that shows how she has evolved."
Barack Obama has been trying to take some of that support from Clinton and has made inroads with Jews opposed to the Iraq war. But he has faced questions about aligning himself with Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser, who has defended the controversial book, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," which contends that pro-Israel activists have undue influence over American foreign affairs.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the umbrella organization for American Jewish groups, said that Brzezinski is a concern to many in the Jewish community because of his positions on Israel. "But the question is what role he plays and what other advisers are involved," Hoenlein said.
The Carter effect
A version of the adviser game hurt Democratic nominee John Kerry in 2004 when he suggested that Carter could serve as a Middle East envoy in his administration. To many Jews, Carter is seen as an apologist for Palestinians; his latest book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," has only heightened that perception.
Jewish leaders say that candidates who associate themselves with advisers who are at odds with mainstream Jewish beliefs on the Middle East can have a tough time trying to convince Jewish voters that their personal viewpoints are different. "Especially if a candidate doesn't have a well-crafted position on an issue, or a long-enough track record, then obviously the thing is to see who's advising them," a Jewish official said. "Who are the voices that are attempting to influence them? Who has access to the candidate's ear?"
Kerry tried to defuse the criticism by touting his brother, Cam Kerry, who had converted to Judaism and was a campaign adviser. Similarly, Obama and Edwards have surrounded themselves with Jewish community leaders and supporters to offset the concerns that their controversial campaign aides have raised.
Obama advisers have said that concerns about Brzezinski have been overstated, and they stress that he will not be advising Obama on Israeli-Palestinian affairs. "He's not the uber-foreign-policy czar of the campaign," one adviser said. "Any candidate is going to be endorsed by people they don't agree with on other issues."
On the Republican side, Giuliani has attracted some early support from Republican Jews. It helps that he ran a city with a large Jewish population and is well known for his strong ties to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He also made headlines for kicking Arafat out of a concert for world leaders in 1995.
"The Orthodox community in New York is obviously not the only Orthodox community in the country, but it's the largest," said one Jewish leader, speaking of the more conservative strand of Judaism. "And so far, they are going with what they know, and that's Rudy."
But around the country, other Republican Jews say that their brethren are not jumping into the fray. Although many Republican Jews view Giuliani and Sen. John McCain favorably, they're concerned about their electability.
And other top-tier candidates are less well known. "It's disconcerting," said Fred Zeidman, a Republican fundraiser in Houston and the chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, who has been raising money for McCain. "None of us are making serious headway in the Jewish community."
Some analysts said that donors may be more likely to give once the candidates discuss their Middle East policies. Positions may become clearer on October 16, when the GOP contenders gather in Washington to address the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Most of the candidates will be addressing an audience interested primarily in the Middle East for the first time, and some campaigns will use the forum to discuss where they stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and their views on dealing with Iran.
Indeed, Iran has become the new bellwether for the Jewish community. Historically, Jewish voters were most concerned about whether candidates supported Israel. But support for Israel has become almost a universal policy position in Washington. The new test is how tough the candidates will be in combating the nuclear threat that Iran poses to Israel, and whether Israel should be allowed to take pre-emptive action.
In the end, analysts said, there are no leading candidates in either party whom Jewish leaders would be very unhappy to have as president. The question is, which one will show the greatest interest in the issues that Jewish voters value most.
The author is covering the presidential campaign as an NBC/National Journal reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.