Obama, Clinton in dead heat among Jewish Democrats

Even as conservatives continue to paint Sen. Barack Obama as being surrounded by anti-Israel advisers, a new poll shows the Illinois senator and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in a dead heat for Jewish support.

According to a Gallup poll tracking views from March 1 to 22, Clinton led Obama 48 percent to 43 percent — a differential falling within the 6 percent margin of error for the 368 Jews who were interviewed.

The results mirror those in a separate national Gallup poll that surveyed the general population.

The poll comes after months of aggressive efforts by Obama and his campaign staff to repel ongoing email attacks painting him as unsupportive of Israel, and amid speculation that he was in danger of losing Jewish support.

Over the past week, conservative Web sites revealed that Obama’s pastor reprinted an opinion piece out of the Los Angeles Times challenging Israel’s right to exist, and pointed to a 2003 interview in which one of his top advisers appeared to blame the pro-Israel lobby for failures in the Middle East peace process.

Citing these sorts of attacks in its news release on the survey, Gallup seemed surprised by the close margin among Jewish voters. But some Democratic observers familiar with the Jewish community said that the tight race should not be shocking.

Mark Mellman, a top Democratic pollster, said the Jewish community is rich in two constituencies that are considered natural redoubts for each of the candidates.

“White women favor Clinton, and college-educated white men favor Obama,” said Mellman, who has not declared for either candidate.

Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, agreed, noting that Clinton also was likelier to draw older voters.

“We’ve got a Jewish electorate that’s professional and highly educated, and that’s good for Obama; we’ve got a Jewish electorate that’s also older, and that’s not good for Obama,” said Forman, who also has not endorsed a candidate.

Given the broad timeline when the poll of Jewish voters was conducted, many of the respondents would have registered their views before the controversy over Obama’s former pastor reached a peak in mid-March.

Obama and his staffers have waged an aggressive campaign to roll back concerns over Wright; and they insisted that other critics of Israeli policy, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Carter administration’s national security adviser, and Robert Malley, a Clinton administration Middle East negotiator, had been incorrectly identified in some media reports as the candidate’s main advisers.

Obama was also quick to denounce the L.A. Times op-ed by a Hamas leader, after it came to light that Wright had republished it last summer in his church bulletin. In an email to JTA, Obama, who has consistently defended Israel and condemned Hamas terrorists, called the op-ed “outrageously wrong.”

The freshest controversy, however, may be tougher to douse. The American Spectator uncovered a 2003 interview with U.S. Army Gen. Merrill “Tony” McPeak, currently a co-chairman of the Obama campaign and — like Obama — an early and consistent critic of the Iraq War.

In the interview with the Oregonian, McPeak faulted the Bush administration’s Iraq policy in part for not being part of a broader Middle East strategy. Asked who is at fault — the White House or the State Department — he answered: “New York City. Miami. We have a large vote … in favor of Israel. And no politician wants to run against it.”

The reporters pressed McPeak to assign responsibility to a faction within the Bush administration, but he insisted on citing Israel and its U.S. supporters.

“I think that everybody understands that a settlement of the Arab-Israeli problem would require the Israelis to stop settling the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and maybe even withdraw some of the settlements they’ve already been put there.”

In an email to JTA, Obama’s campaign distanced the candidate from the comments but not from his co-chairman.

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.