Attendees call it a threat to Jewry

CHICAGO — Jewish Democrats believe they have a winning strategy to re-elect President Clinton: Tell voters to imagine what Bob Dole would do as president.

Jewish delegates, activists and Vice President Al Gore himself repeated the mantra time and time again at the Democratic National Convention here this week in an effort to energize the Democratic faithful as the sprint toward Election Day begins in earnest.

Dole would bring prayer back to America's schools, outlaw abortion, explode the deficit, eviscerate social service programs and cut education spending, the argument goes.

"If Bob Dole was in the White House, there would have been no one to say no to school prayer, reject harsh budget cuts, ban assault weapons or rescue the U.S.-Israel relationship," said Monte Friedkin, national chairman of the Washington-based National Jewish Democratic Council.

Add Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) as speaker of the House and there's a real danger to American Jewry, Democrats say.

Borrowing a line from the Dole campaign, Jewish Democrats are asking: Whom do you trust more to appoint two Supreme Court justices to fill the vacancies expected to arise in the next four years?

Without any ambitious new proposals from the president to sink their political teeth into, Jewish Democrats and Clinton administration officials are, for the time being, focusing their energies on painting the Republican presidential ticket as extreme.

"Bill Clinton and his veto pen were the last line of defense against the Republican agenda," Friedkin said.

Using similar language, Gore told cheering Jewish activists, delegates and politicians at a joint NJDC-American Israel Public Affairs Committee reception in Chicago this week:

"Ask yourselves what it would feel like if the same coalition that pulls the strings for Gingrich and Dole [could not] be stopped by a president with a veto pen."

In the historically uncommon yet enviable position of mobilizing a campaign for a sitting president's second term, Democrats and their Jewish supporters continue to ponder what they would like to see from Clinton if voters give him four more years.

On the wish list is adjusting welfare reform, protecting the environment and balancing the budget while protecting Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and social service programs.

Being short on specifics for the future, however, Jewish Democrats in the meantime are sounding a united voice to praise the president's record on issues closely watched by many American Jews.

"The Clinton-Gore team shares our values," said Mayor Jerry Abramson of Louisville, Ky.

In an address to the Clinton-Gore Jewish Leadership Council, Abramson ticked off his view of these common ideals: strong families, responsibility for education, a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, an appreciation for ethnic and racial diversity, and a healthy economy.

While Abramson acknowledged that domestic issues are likely to dominate the election season, he — like most who spoke to Jewish audiences here — praised Clinton's record on Israel.

"We have a chaver [friend]," said Abramson, referring to Clinton's "Shalom, chaver" farewell at the funeral of slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

For many assembled here, it is still the economy that they believe will thrust Clinton to victory.

"Clinton-Gore brought us out of the recession and have created millions of jobs," said Sheldon Silver, speaker of the New York state Assembly and chairman of the Empire State's delegation to the convention.

"Bill Clinton passes the test when people are asked if they are better off now than four years ago," said Silver, touted by campaign officials as one of the highest-ranking Orthodox Jews at the convention.

As Clinton's Jewish foot soldiers take their message to Jewish voters in key states across the country, they will argue that Clinton deserves re-election because his work is not yet done.

"When things come up, you want someone who is a proven ally," said Steve Rothman, a New Jersey candidate for Congress.

Rothman, who would be the first Jewish congressmember from his northern New Jersey district, predicted that Jewish Democrats would rally around the president for his new efforts at gun control and for fixing the recently enacted welfare bill.

The welfare legislation, signed by Clinton last week, pitted many of the president's traditional Jewish-community allies against him.

Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), general chairman of the Democratic National Committee, had some advice for those voters who were upset by the welfare reform bill. Dodd, who voted against the reforms Clinton was supporting, made peace with the president about his decision.

"This president cares about the issue," said Dodd in a brief interview at the Jewish-sponsored reception Sunday night. "He's committed to trying to fix the problems in the bill, especially for legal immigrants."

The legislation, in addition to ending guaranteed federal assistance for the poor, would end benefits for legal immigrants who have not become citizens. Russian Jews, many of whom have settled in the Bay Area, could be affected.

Echoing the anti-Dole strategy that the Democrats hope to convey, Dodd added that on the welfare issue, "Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich would do no better."

This is the message that the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign — and the NJDC plan to bring to Jewish voters this fall.

In countless sessions held throughout the week in the Windy City, Jewish Democrats strategized about how to mobilize support for the party, particularly in at least eight target states with significant Jewish populations.

For its part, the NJDC plans to target its efforts exclusively in California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Those are the same states on which the NJDC's Republican counterpart, the Washington-based National Jewish Coalition, intends to focus its attention.

As the NJDC targets those states, the Washington-based group is seeking new activists, said NJDC political director Amy Simon.

The grassroots Democratic group has employed at least eight fieldworkers to mobilize Jewish support for Democratic candidates — especially the Clinton-Gore team.

Unlike the Jewish outreach department at the presidential campaign, which closes up shop after the election, the NJDC hopes to gain a foothold for years to come.

"We're not just living from election to election," Simon said.

Meanwhile, Clinton-Gore officials met with state delegations at the convention to mobilize Jewish delegates and activists to support the ticket.

A manual titled "Getting Out the Jewish Vote for Clinton/Gore '96" urges activists to reach Jewish voters en masse through state steering committees and district captains.

"This election campaign will hit full steam around the High Holy Days," said Sara Ehrman, senior political adviser and former head of Jewish outreach. "It's an opportunity to reach large groups of Jewish voters."

And Jewish Democratic activists remain confident that Jews will support the president at the approximately 80 percent level, as they did in 1992.

"Bill Clinton is once again going to get the support of American Jews," said Lynn Lyss, co-chair of the Clinton-Gore Jewish Leadership Council, a national group devoted to reaching out to Jews.

Clinton's re-election, she said, "is critical for the future."