AIPAC conference &mdash the place to see and be seen

washington | The upcoming Israeli election was not the only race for head of state on the minds of participants at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference this week.

The three-day gathering featured major policy addresses by four likely American presidential candidates in 2008, all of whom have been out of the foreign-policy spotlight in recent years.

It also provided a rare opportunity for Democrats to showcase their support for Israel, and Democratic Jewish leaders seemed eager to seize the moment.

While AIPAC does not allow active political challengers to address its annual policy conference — Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) was absent in 2004, when President Bush gave the keynote address — it served this year as a key forum for undeclared candidates.

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) was given a prime position as the Democratic speaker at AIPAC’s dinner Monday, March 6. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, spoke to major donors at a luncheon Monday. Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), the 2004 vice presidential nominee, addressed an open forum Monday morning.

Vice President Dick Cheney also spoke, telling the audience, “We will not abandon our belief in democracy, we will not abandon our opposition to terrorism, and we will not abandon our commitment to the security of our friends and allies.”

In addition to presidential hopefuls, the conference included appearances by more than half of the Senate and 125 members of the House of Representatives. Those numbers were significantly lower than in past years, largely because the House was out of session.

A mix of critical issues for Israel and a contentious political environment has made the pro-Israel circuit an important stop on the campaign trail. Several congressional and presidential hopefuls spoke of planned trips to Israel and had tough words for the Iranian government and for Hamas.

Control of both parties of Congress is seen as up for grabs this November, escalating the outreach. Several Jewish candidates are seen as among the best chances for Democrats to pick up seats in the House, including Ron Klein, a Democratic state senator in Florida seeking to unseat Rep. Clay Shaw, and Gabrielle Giffords, a Democratic Arizona state legislator seeking to fill an open seat.

Giffords was seen meeting party leaders and AIPAC delegates Monday; Klein was in Washington last week, hosted by Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) at a fund-raiser.

More candidates with their eyes on 2008 shook hands throughout the Monday night event. Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and George Allen (R-Va.) made appearances, as did Kerry.

Following Monday’s dinner, the NJDC put on its own show, highlighting pro-Israel senatorial candidates, particularly Pennsylvania State Treasurer Bob Casey, who is running against incumbent Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).

NJDC Executive Director Ira Forman said he has been encouraging his supporters to attend AIPAC policy conferences in recent years. AIPAC has shown strong support for the Bush administration, and support for Republican candidates among pro-Israel voters has risen.

For its part, the Republican Jewish Coalition also made sure that rising Republican senatorial candidates were being seen and heard. Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele was shepherded around the event, as was Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.).

There were notable absences. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), a keynote speaker last year, did not attend the AIPAC conference. She was not invited to speak because she is seeking re-election.