Candidates at AIPAC affirm Jewish political might

WASHINGTON — Along one hallway in a Washington hotel Sunday night, the first signs of how Jewish support for the 2004 Democratic presidential challengers will be doled out came into focus.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), in his element and among his base of support, worked a shoulder-to-shoulder room of loyalists and college students. When he tried to leave he was encircled, forced to take baby steps for close to an hour before he reached the exit.

Howard Dean, the anti-war former governor of Vermont, talked shop with a strong crowd of unfamiliar faces in a room half the size of Lieberman's. While he walked virtually anonymously to the reception room, he left in a scrum similar to the Jewish senator's.

And Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), the former House Democratic leader, shook hands in the corner of an open room at the end of the hallway, with as many people interested in the food platters — which had survived longer than the other presidential contenders' spreads — as those who wanted to speak to the candidate.

While it is by no means a scientific survey, the crowds and enthusiasm at the receptions following the first day of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference gave a clue as to where Jewish support is going in the primary election.

The fact that five presidential hopefuls attended the conference — Sens. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.) were at Monday night's banquet — showed how much influence the Jewish community is expected to wield in the primary season.

Political analysts often say that the Jewish community's influence in politics goes well beyond its percentage of the electorate: American Jews are more apt to give money to presidential candidates than are other demographic groups, and also do the grassroots work that campaigns thrive on.

Those who come to an AIPAC conference have proven they are involved in the process, making them a perfect place for candidates to make their presidential pitch.

"The men and women of AIPAC, including the college students, are as politically active collectively as any group in America," said Steve Grossman, a former AIPAC president and chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who now advises Dean.

Officially there is no fund-raising at the AIPAC event, as both the candidates and AIPAC staffers often remind people. In fact, none of the contenders was invited to speak at the conference, though all were offered the opportunity to host a reception and attend Monday's celebration.

Still, more than half of the candidates made their presence known, largely because the next hand a candidate shakes at an AIPAC event might lead to a check in the future.

"It's a good way to get influential, high-profile and often wealthy members of your core constituency," said Ken Goldstein, a professor of political science and Judaic studies at the University of Wisconsin. "Grassroots are important but grass tops are important, and these are grass tops."

That theory does not hold just for presidential candidates but for anyone with political aspirations. That's why half of the Senate and close to half of the House of Representatives came to AIPAC's Monday night celebration.

AIPAC may not be the best gauge for the Jewish community's support of candidates. Goldstein says AIPAC voters are more hawkish and conservative than they used to be, something that would help Lieberman but hurt Dean and Gephardt.

But there are some Jews who vote based on a candidate's take on Israel, especially at AIPAC. And perhaps one of the stronger candidates for 2004 among this group — President Bush — didn't need a reception room.

"I probably will support George Bush again, and I'm a life-long Democrat,'' said Anita Gold of Boca Raton, Fla.