Front-runners for Kerry ticket are strong on Israel and Jewish issues

washington | It’s hunting season in Washington, and the prey wins the prize: second place on the Democratic Party ticket.

The excitement of the chase belongs to the Democrats in 2004, since President Bush has said he will keep Vice President Dick Cheney on his ticket.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, has played his cards close to his chest, reportedly because he learned from a leak to the press in 2000 that he had been dropped from presidential candidate Al Gore’s short list of running mates, and he wants to spare others the same humiliation.

Not everything can be kept secret, however, and repeat meetings with Kerry, along with the appearance of Kerry’s background checkers at small-town libraries across the country, have suggested three front-runners: Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack.

A number of other dark-horse candidates remain in the pool; each has had interactions with the Jewish communities in their states. Following are profiles of Kerry’s potential running mates, in alphabetical order:

Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.): Biden, 61, is well known in the Jewish world, having served for more than 30 years in the Senate. The former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden has been an outspoken backer of Israel. "He’s extraordinarily knowledgeable about so many areas of the world, particularly the Middle East," said Toni Young, a former president of the Jewish Federation of Delaware. "We tend to go to him on things international."

Biden has suggested that his many years in the Senate and on the Foreign Relations Committee have freed him from "politically correct" constraints. He is a tough advocate of Israel’s right to defend itself but also is an outspoken critic of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s failure to freeze settlement building in the West Bank, saying it has done Israel more harm than good.

Biden has been tough on the Bush administration, suggesting it has not been engaged sufficiently in the Middle East and did not do enough to aid Mahmoud Abbas during his brief tenure as Palestinian Authority prime minister.

Gen. Wesley Clark: Clark’s candidacy in the Democratic primaries generated excitement among American Jews, both because of the pride and interest Clark took in his discovery that his father was Jewish and because of the familiarity he showed with Israel’s security needs.

The former NATO commander referred to Israeli generals on a first-name basis and parsed the differences among them on how to defend the Jewish state. Clark was able to raise $1 million in a single evening from a New York Jewish audience, and he was one of the few candidates to hire a full-time Jewish outreach official early in the season.

Clark also listened closely to Jewish supporters when it came to forging domestic policies on abortion and on assistance to the poor and elderly.

Clark, who is from Arkansas, could help Kerry in the South, and his service in the military could further highlight differences from the Republican ticket: Kerry and Clark both were wounded in Vietnam, while neither Bush nor Cheney served there.

Clark, 59, has successfully negotiated peace, in Bosnia, and prosecuted war, in Kosovo. Significantly, his gut-level empathy for Israel means he received little grief for taking exactly the same position on Israeli-Palestinian peace as did Kerry — one that envisions a more multilateral approach to peace brokering.

Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.): Edwards’ greatest strength among Jewish voters may be that he has never really needed their support. North Carolina’s Jewish community is small and lacks the influence of larger communities, and the trial lawyer’s 1998 run for the Senate was largely self-financed. Yet North Carolina Jews give Edwards high marks for reaching out to them and listening to their concerns.

"John would always make himself available to us," Randall Kaplan, a Greensboro board member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, told JTA earlier this year. Kaplan advised Edwards’ campaign on Middle Eastern issues.

Edwards, 51, who grew up poor in the Carolinas, speaks eloquently of the disenfranchised. His rags-to-riches story could give Kerry traction in Southern states, and his views on extending health care and education to those on society’s margins could appeal to Jewish voters.

Edwards sought advice from the pro-Israel community when he earned a spot on the Senate Intelligence Committee. He visited Israel with committee colleagues in 2001 and was there when a suicide bomber attacked a Sbarro’s restaurant in downtown Jerusalem.

Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.): Gephardt tearfully announced his retirement from politics after losing in the Iowa caucuses in January, disappointing many Jews in Missouri and elsewhere, but Gephardt now is considered one of the front-runners in Kerry’s considerations for vice president. Gephardt, 63, had a strong pro-Israel record after arriving in Congress in 1977 and through his career as the Democratic leader in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1989-2002. He was the highest-ranking congressional official to speak at an April 15, 2002, solidarity rally for Israel at the Capitol.

On domestic issues, Gephardt’s lead on health care issues earns him kudos from Jewish voters. He also gets points from Jewish civil rights groups for helping push through hate-crimes legislation. Jews in Gephardt’s hometown of St. Louis credit him with keeping close ties to the community, meeting its leaders for brunch three or four times a year and taking an early lead on Soviet Jewry issues in the 1980s.

Gephardt could bring Midwestern credibility and strong union endorsements to Kerry’s campaign. His popularity with working-class voters also could help with another key constituency in some battleground states: Arab Americans.

Gephardt’s blue-collar credentials earned him a warm welcome at an Arab American Institute conference in Michigan in October, despite the fact that he had among the strongest pro-Israel records of any candidate there and hardly mentioned foreign policy in his speech.

Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.): Graham received a great deal of Jewish support in his home state when he ran for president last year, and his name on the Democratic ticket could lead more Jews to vote for Kerry in a must-win state.

As a governor and senator, Graham actively backed Israel, a political necessity given Florida’s significant Jewish population. He frequently has spoken out in Israel’s defense on the Senate floor.

In addition to helping Kerry in Florida and the South, Graham could add credibility on security issues because of the tough-minded reputation he earned as the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

He accuses the Bush administration of failing to pay enough attention to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as breeding grounds for terrorism, a message Democrats know resonates with Jewish voters who otherwise give Bush high marks on security.

Graham recently has pressured the administration to take a tougher stance against Syria’s support for terrorist organizations in Lebanon.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.): Like Graham, Nelson, 61, has won rave reviews from Florida’s Jewish community. Though he has been in the Senate only four years, the former astronaut has gained a reputation as an advocate for Jewish community priorities, specifically social issues.

"He at least listens to our arguments and, more often than not, he signs on," said Amy Dean, chairwoman of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

Dean praised both Florida lawmakers, saying they have worked to gain appropriations for Florida’s Jewish community, and she noted that Nelson has signed on to pro-Israel resolutions in the Senate.

Nelson could offer Kerry a lift in Florida, a crucial battleground state; however, the freshman senator has suggested he would prefer to defer the vice presidency to Graham.

Gov. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.): Richardson, 56, would be an obvious pick for Kerry if he believes that it’s crucial to stem Republican inroads into the predominantly pro-Democratic Hispanic community.

Richardson, who before his 2002 election as New Mexico governor served as a congressman and Cabinet officer, is the nation’s most prominent Hispanic politician. He is to chair next month’s Democratic Party convention.

Richardson also could help Kerry make inroads into the Jewish community: Pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington praise him for his performance as U.N. ambassador from 1997 to 1998. They recall an instance in which Richardson suspended a Security Council debate to fly to Washington for a briefing with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s executive committee.

"He is someone who is very well versed in the foreign policy area, and someone who’s been a friend of Israel," said Jess Hordes, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s National and Governmental Affairs office in Washington.

As energy secretary from 1998-2000, Richardson expanded scientific cooperation with Israel; as governor, he directed New Mexico’s recent purchase of $10 million in Israeli government bonds. Richardson also was a friend on domestic issues, Jewish officials say.

Richardson also could bolster Kerry’s foreign policy credentials. A four-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, Richardson is the only Clinton-era Democrat the Bush administration has turned to for diplomatic help, notably on the issue of North Korean nuclear weapons.

Gov. Tom Vilsack (D-Iowa): Iowa’s small Jewish community has nothing but good things to say about Vilsack. Back-and-forths at Des Moines’ Tifereth Israel synagogue are a must-do for Iowa candidates, and Vilsack always gets a warm reception — to the extent that in 2002 the Des Moines Register called the venue "potentially hostile" to Republicans.

That’s because Vilsack has been hands-on with the 6,000-strong Jewish community, according to Paulee Lipsman, a Jewish Democrat and a senior staffer in the state legislature.

Vilsack, 53, exempted Holocaust survivors from state taxes on recovered insurance funds and has issued a proclamation each Yom Hashoah, attending ceremonies on some occasions. Such dedication to Holocaust remembrance is significant in a state where Holocaust deniers have made some inroads in rural areas, according to local Jewish officials.

Lipsman says Vilsack jibes with local Jews on domestic issues, a plus in a state where the Republican-dominated legislature trends conservative.

"He has consistently vetoed anti-choice bills that have come through the legislature, he has worked hard to expand health care to children, he worked hard with limited Medicaid to provide health care for seniors," she said.

Vilsack could appeal to Kerry as a Democrat from a conservative state who has won two elections running on bread-and-butter social issues. But on foreign policy, a crucial issue in a war-year election, he’s a blank slate.

That’s true on Israel, too — not surprising for the governor of a Midwestern state that has little business with the Middle East. Vilsack has indicated that one day he would like to visit Israel.