Lieberman must battle other Democrats for Jewish money

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STAMFORD, Conn. — If Jewish money accounts for an estimated half of big-time Democratic donations during the presidential primary season, then Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) would seem to be at a distinct advantage.

But that may not be the case.

Analysts say that Lieberman may have a slight advantage in the money game because he is an observant Jew with strong ties to the organized Jewish community.

But Lieberman's base of support is the same group that the other Democratic hopefuls will be soliciting fervently.

And others already have some key Jewish players behind them.

In addition, new campaign finance laws that go into effect for the first time will change the way Jewish money is doled out for 2004.

"Lieberman will get a substantial majority of Jewish contributions," but the new campaign laws will expand the number of dollars people can contribute in the election cycle, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

The new law, known as McCain-Feingold for the lawmakers that sponsored it, doubled the amount of contributions a person could give to a primary campaign to $2,000.

It also raised the amount of money a contributor could give to all candidates and committees in each election cycle from $50,000 to $95,000.

And because soft-money donations — unlimited funds given to the national political parties to use on behalf of candidates — have been banned, there are fewer avenues for the money to be distributed and fewer large-scale donations for candidates.

That makes individual contributions, theoretically, more important, although loopholes are expected to be found around the new laws.

Analysts say the new laws will lead to an increase in contributors who are "double dipping," giving funds to more than one Democratic candidate.

Marvin Lender, the bagels magnate and Jewish communal leader who is serving on the board of the Lieberman campaign, said he believes the "lion's share of large gifts" to the Lieberman campaign will come from Jewish donors.

But that does not mean he will get all of the Jewish money.

Steve Grossman, former national chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has been working the phones for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, soliciting numerous Jewish donors.

He says the Jewish community is much less monolithic than people believe, and he is not writing off the constituency for his candidate.

"There's a vast number of Jews who can write $2,000 checks who don't affiliate with Jewish entities," said Grossman, a former president of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

"For those people not imbued with the Jewish community, Joe Lieberman will not have any particular advantage over other candidates."

Those groups include Jewish trial lawyers, who have a former member of their profession in Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), health care professionals who may largely support Dean, a physician, and gays and lesbians, who also back Dean because he supported gay civil unions in Vermont.

If Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) enters the race, his strong ties to Florida's Jewish community could also come at a cost to Lieberman, as will the relations Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has cultivated in his home state.

Having been in the Democratic leadership for more than 15 years, Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) has links to Jewish donors around the country.

Support for a candidate is "based on access, past support and friendships," said Morris Amitay, a Jewish fund-raiser and former executive director of AIPAC. "A lot of it is personal."

In addition, many Jewish voters may base their support on the candidates' positions on Israel. At the same time the Israel issue could become a non-issue this time around, given that other Democratic hopefuls, as well as President Bush, are also seen as strong proponents of Israel.

There are also many Jewish voters who will back the candidate that comes closest to their policy views, no matter what religion.

"For a significant number of people, maybe even an equal number, they are Jewish, but health care, the economy, civil rights and the war tend to drive their support for a candidate more than whether one candidate happens to be Jewish," Grossman said.