News Analysis: Jews stick with Clinton despite welfare bill letdown

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Jewish Democrats have lit up the White House switchboard and filled the president's desk with pleas urging Bill Clinton to veto welfare reform legislation.

On the eve of next week's Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Clinton was scheduled to sign the bill, prompting a round of outcry from the party's base.

But despite their dismay, many Jewish supporters of Clinton are setting aside a deep disagreement with the administration over welfare to work toward a common goal: reelecting the president.

"This president overall has the vision for where this country needs to go," said Lynn Lyss, co-chair of the Clinton-Gore Jewish Leadership Council.

Lyss was "disappointed" when Clinton agreed to sign the welfare reform bill into law because it cuts immigrant access to benefits. A former chair of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, she echoed many Jewish activists when she urged Clinton to veto the reform bill.

But Lyss, who also serves on the Democratic platform committee, and other Jewish Democratic activists say that unlike Dole, Clinton will consider amending the welfare bill.

"The only way to correct the bill is to re-elect the president," said Donna Bojarsky, a Jewish activist who will attend the convention as a delegate from Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, Clinton is basking in an estimated 90 percent approval rating from American Jews since 1994, according to Democratic sources. He hopes to build on the 1992 election, when four out of five American Jewish voters backed the Clinton-Gore ticket.

With a traditionally large turnout at the polling place, the Jewish vote could provide either candidate with the margin of victory in key states such as New Jersey, Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania.

"This race will be decided by 3 or 4 points," said Deborah Mohile, director of Jewish outreach for the Clinton-Gore campaign.

An unpublished survey of likely Jewish voters conducted early this summer by a leading Democratic polling company found Clinton beating Dole 78 to 12.

The poll of 750 Jews, commissioned by a Jewish organization that released the information on the condition that its name not be used, found that 9 percent remained undecided.

So the Clinton-Gore campaign and the National Jewish Democratic Council plan to hit the ground running after Clinton's formal nomination next week at the Chicago convention.

With 10 weeks until election day, Democrats hope to focus the Jewish community's attention on the "stark differences between Clinton and Dole on issues important to the Jewish community," said Stephen Silberfarb, assistant director of the NJDC.

"Are people upset about the welfare bill? That's clearly the case," Silberfarb said.

But "in President Clinton we have somebody who wants to come back and revisit sections of the bill," Silberfarb added. Dole "wouldn't fix it; he hails it."

Clinton campaign officials say the president has assembled a task force to examine ways of easing the reform's impact through administrative means. While the legislation sets out policy, how the reforms are actually implemented is governed by the way federal agencies write the rules.

Democrats also plan to attack Bob Dole and his running mate, Jack Kemp, on their support for school prayer and a ban on abortions.

"While focused on welfare, the Jewish community is more concerned about prayer in school and reproductive freedom," Silberfarb said. "The choice is clear."

The Republican platform calls for a constitutional amendment banning abortions and for a return of prayer to America's classrooms.

Democrats oppose prayer in school and favor abortion rights, which they term "reproductive choice."

Clinton sought this week to solidify his base of voters, including Jews, by staging high-profile signing ceremonies for measures that raise the minimum wage and partially reform the health-care system.

Jewish Democrats also plan to attack Dole's record on Israel while highlighting Clinton's record.

"Clinton is reliable and has a kishka feeling for Israel that Dole does not have," Silberfarb said.

Clinton's reference to the slain Yitzhak Rabin during a speech at his 50th birthday celebration this week at New York's Radio City Music Hall was the latest of his "heartfelt pro-Israel statements," said one campaign official.

"I started out my presidency with one of the greatest men I ever met in my life, the late prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin," Clinton said. "I miss him so much."

Challenging Republican claims that Jack Kemp will moderate Dole on Israel, Silberfarb said, "Kemp has already shown that he will move to Dole's positions on affirmative action and immigration."

While his recent legislative history has been widely described as pro-Israel, Dole has in the past called for a cut in Israel's aid and has opposed moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Before resigning from the Senate, Dole reversed himself and sponsored legislation recognizing Jerusalem and requiring that the embassy be moved.

Activists say that for Clinton to succeed, the Jewish electorate must be mobilized and motivated.

"The fear of a Dole win is enough to get Jews out to the polls," Mohile said.

Jewish Democratic activists this week sent out a workbook titled "Getting Out the Jewish Vote for Clinton-Gore" nationwide.

At the convention next week, an estimated 400 Jewish delegates, representing about 10 percent of the total, will meet with Clinton campaign officials to coordinate getting out the Jewish vote.