WASHINGTON — "People here are going to be happy to hear that," the campaign worker said, learning that U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had top approval ratings in the field of presidential candidates among Jewish Americans.
The news, delivered by a reporter last month, was especially welcome in the Clinton camp because her lead in nomination polls — nationally and in early state polls — was slipping.
Seven years of hard work cultivating the Jewish leadership in New York and nationally had paid off for Clinton. Her approval rating among Jewish Democrats, according to the American Jewish Committee poll, was 70 percent. Among all Jews it was 53 percent.
As first lady, Clinton’s pro-Israel record at times seemed one note, even superficial, against the breadth and depth her husband brought to the issue.
Whereas Bill Clinton could name the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, opine on Zionist history and deliver a persuasive "Shalom chaver" at Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral, Hillary Clinton’s repertoire was limited to introducing an Israeli early childhood education program to Arkansas.
As late as December 1998, during the couple’s visit to Israel, the first lady’s affiliation with the Hebrew University’s Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters, known as HIPPY, was the centerpiece of her leg of the visit.
It didn’t help her profile among Jews that the Clinton administration used her as a stalking horse to advocate for a Palestinian state. Then in 1999, on the eve of her first bid for the U.S. Senate, she embraced Suha Arafat after the Palestinian leader’s wife accused Israel of deliberately poisoning Palestinian children. Clinton said later she hadn’t been paying close attention to the simultaneous translation.
It soon became clear, however, that she was willing to listen. Some of the signals were politics-as-usual horse-trading. President Clinton’s final pardons included four residents of the Chasidic enclave in New Square, N.Y. , who had been convicted of defrauding the government. She received overwhelming support from the town during the election.
Once elected to the Senate, Clinton reached out to Jewish organizational leaders and soon became a staple of the Jewish circuit. Hardly a Washington event run by a national Jewish group does not include an address by Clinton — often on Tuesday morning, just before delegates go to the Capitol to lobby.
On many issues, particularly in the domestic arena, little gap existed between Clinton and the predominantly liberal Jewish organizational community. As first lady, Clinton had an established record promoting universal health care, and as senator she worked hard to stop Bush administration rollbacks on the Medicare program, which is almost universally favored by a Jewish population aging more rapidly than other Americans.
In other areas Clinton exhibited a subtle grasp of issues that concern the community, strongly backing discretionary Homeland Security funds to help protect nonprofits from terrorist attack. The bulk of those funds have gone to Jewish institutions.
She also has adopted as her own a campaign to press Arab governments to remove incitment against Jews and Israel from their textbooks.
Clinton took a hit this fall from her party’s base when she voted in favor of a nonbinding amendment that recommended sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. Bush eventually ordered the sanctions, favored by the pro-Israel lobby as a means of pressing Iran to give up its suspected nuclear weapons program.
That drew sharp criticism from her competitors, who said the vote would embolden the Bush administration into waging war against Iran. She stood her ground.
"Iran is seeking nuclear weapons," she said in an Oct. 30 MSNBC-sponsored debate. "And the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is in the forefront of that, as they are in the sponsorship of terrorism."
She added: "I prefer vigorous diplomacy, and I happen to think economic sanctions are part of vigorous diplomacy."
It was straight from the pro-Israel playbook, and it illustrates what has attracted not only Jewish voter support but, perhaps even more substantively, Jewish fund-raiser support.
Two of her major backers in this campaign supported polar opposites among the Democrats in 2004: Lonnie Kaplan of New Jersey went for Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and his tough foreign policy, and Steve Grossman opted for ex-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who was fiercely anti-war.
At a National Jewish Democratic Council candidates’ forum last spring, Grossman and Kaplan, both former presidents of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, sat next to each other and conferred occasionally on their favored candidate: Hillary Clinton.