Clinton, Dole backers debate: Whos best for Jews

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But Dole will fight for Jewish votes anyway, especially in states such as New Jersey, Michigan, Illinois and California.

Neuman defended the newly retired Kansas senator at "Clinton vs. Dole: Who's Best for the Jews," a debate that took place at the American Jewish Press Association's annual conference two weeks ago in San Francisco.

In the 1992 election, Bill Clinton captured 75 to 80 percent of the Jewish vote. According to his supporters, the president's record on social issues and on Israel since then will do nothing but help him in November.

The president has appointed two Jews to the U.S. Supreme Court and several Jews to top positions in his administration. His approach to social issues, such as abortion rights, generally reflects the Jewish community's stance. He reversed the Bush administration's poor relations with Israel and oversaw a blossoming Mideast peace process.

Former U.S. Rep. Mel Levine (D-Los Angeles), who was representing Clinton at the debate, said Dole's record can't compare.

"I wouldn't call Senator Dole an enemy of Israel," Levine said. "President Clinton has been a strong and consistent friend of Israel. And in a word, Dole has not."

Neuman, who acknowledged Clinton's support for Israel, differed with Levine's casting of Dole.

For 30 years, Neuman said, Dole has been a "good friend" of both American Jews and Israel — all as a senator from a state with a small Jewish constituency.

"He showed it long before it was in vogue," said Neuman, who participated in the debate from Columbus, Ohio, via speaker phone. "He has done it because it's the right thing to do."

Since childhood, Dole has been friends with U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who is Jewish. Dole joined demonstrations to free Soviet Jews in the 1970s. He attended American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conferences as far back as 1971. And last year, he co-sponsored a bill to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Levine countered that Dole's record on issues important to America's Jews was strong early in his career, then slipped until just recently.

At times, he said, Dole requested cuts in foreign aid to Israel. In contrast to his co-sponsorship of last year's embassy bill, Dole spoke out strongly against such a move in 1990. That same year, Levine said, Dole built an "unusually friendly relationship" with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

"I know it's a sensitive topic," Levine said.

But Neuman reminded the audience that then-U.S. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), who is Jewish, also met with Hussein.

"What they were trying to do was stop a war," Neuman said, adding that current Secretary of State Warren Christopher has made 17 trips to Syria "to coddle" President Hafez Assad.

Guiding the debate were Los Angeles Times reporter Mary Curtius and San Francisco Examiner executive editor Phil Bronstein.

Curtius asked noted pollster Mervin Field, who also participated, whether it was useless for Republicans to go after the Jewish vote.

Because polls include so few Jews, Field said, "very large and unwarranted conclusions are being made." But, he added, Jews on the whole have voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates since World War II.

The current 16-point lead Clinton holds over Dole in national polls is doubled among Jews, estimated the founder and director of the Field Poll.

With the exception of Israel issues, Field said, Jews vote like the general population with similar education, income, occupation and family size.

In surveys, 15 percent of Jews classify themselves as conservative, 40 percent as moderate and 45 percent as liberal. But when Jews answer specific questions, Field said, they generally come out as "reasonably conservative" on economic issues and liberal on social issues.

"It's the social issues that are driving them more than economic issues," added Field, who is Jewish.

As a result, Dole's position on social issues also will influence Jews.

Neuman described Dole as a fundamentally mainstream candidate, along the lines of California Gov. Pete Wilson. He accused the Democrats of trying to scare Jews by linking Dole with the religious right.

Levine contended that national Republican candidates today must curry the favor of the far right and the religious right, particularly on policy regarding abortion and church-state separation.

The test will come at the Republican convention in San Diego this summer when Dole will have to decide how much of a platform to give the far right's defeated presidential candidate, Pat Buchanan.

"Will Bob Dole stand up to that in San Diego?" Levine asked. "I don't know the answer."

But Neuman countered that mainstream Republican governors will drive the Dole administration and Buchanan "won't have a say."