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Notes from the campaign trail: Israel and the Dems; Mitt Romney; GOP faves

by James D. Besser

May 3, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Presidential campaigns keep getting longer and uglier, but the candidates, at least, are volunteers. Hapless voters are a kind of captive audience -- bombarded by attack ads and money, pummeled by the ever-shifting conventional wisdom and dizzily spun by candidates whose views change with the winds.

Election Day 2008 is still more than a year away, but the 24/7 news cycle and the tidal wave of money already lavished on a long list of serious contenders have combined to redouble the assault on our senses and pocketbooks.

Here are some notes from the campaign trail:

The Israel Factor and the Democrats

It's understandable that Republican candidates approach Jewish voters with a single issue -- Israel. After all, the conservative domestic positions demanded by the conservative GOP base are generally nonstarters with a still-liberal community.

But why do Democrats react by playing the same game?

At last week's National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) forum, candidate after candidate focused overwhelmingly on Israel, even though most of the folks in the room were already perfectly comfortable with the party's pro-Israel standing.

Isn't that just playing into the Republicans' hands by seeming to be on the defensive, when Jewish voters obviously don't agree with GOP attack ads tarring the Dems as soft on Israel and suggesting that's all Jewish voters should care about?

Why didn't the Democratic contenders come to NJDC and say "you know where I stand on Israel, let's talk about health care, the economy and Darfur?"

James Baker III

Also at last week's NJDC's conference, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson stepped in it when, in response to a reporter's question, he said he might consider former Secretary of State James Baker as a special Mideast envoy.

Smart move, Bill; word immediately flashed across the Internet, and Richardson will now spend a lot of time and energy telling pro-Israel groups he didn't really mean it.

It's a familiar trap for politicians. Baker may not have had a love affair with Jews, but at least he had the diplomatic grit to bring Israel and her hostile neighbors together in negotiations previously considered impossible.

That's what politicians in both parties remember, not his infamous "bleep the Jews" comment and his clash with the Yitzhak Shamir government over loan guarantees, actions that have been turned into mortal sins by Jewish groups that opposed Baker's Madrid peace talks and have opposed every initiative since then.

Mitt Romney, Big Game Hunter

You think the pro-Israel lobby is all-powerful? Then you haven't been paying attention to the gun lobby, which makes everybody else look like slackers.

That was evident last month when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, desperate to win over the NRA crowd, boasted of his lifelong love of hunting, only to be embarrassed when it was revealed he had only hunted twice. He tried to make up for it by issuing statements about his favorite guns, but the whole episode was an embarrassment for a candidate already being slammed as the ultimate flip flopper.

Once again, it seems that gun ownership and hunting are absolute prerequisites to winning the GOP nomination, and it doesn't hurt Democrats to have a few trophies on the wall, either. Maybe Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) should start packing heat and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) should nail a few varmints.

The gun gap may be the biggest single impediment to a serious Jewish presidential candidate. Can you see Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) going before the NRA and talking about the .22 he got as a bar mitzvah present? Or Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) bragging about a great ten-point buck he bagged?

Favorite Republicans

Six months ago, the conventional wisdom held that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), a "maverick" who once stood up to the powerful religious right, was the Republican best positioned to capture a larger-than-average slice of the Jewish vote in 2008.

How fortunes change: today McCain is seen as too tied to President Bush's Iraq war policies, which are opposed by a big majority of Jewish voters, and too enthusiastic in his outreach to the religious right.

Now it's former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani who could boost the GOP's sagging fortunes among Jewish voters, the pundits say. Rudy is a familiar face, he's indelibly stamped with the imprint of the Big Apple and he has in the past taken moderate positions on hot button social issues.

But wait: In order to win the Republican nomination, the former mayor is veering right so fast he risks a dislocated neck. In June he's scheduled to speak at Pat Robertson's Regent University; he's flipping on abortion and flopping on gay "civil unions"; he is calling Democratic health care plans "socialized medicine."

Now there's a lot of whispering about former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) as the next Jewish GOP favorite.

Stay tuned.


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