Obama loses ground in vital campaign rally


A week ago they were competing for African-American votes in the Deep South. But late on Monday Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama went head to head for another key demographic group: Jewish voters.

In one of the most important campaign stops yet, supporters from the Clinton and Obama camps, as well as other presidential hopefuls, flooded the hallways of the Washington Convention Centre distributing fliers and shouting through loudhailers in their bid to draw people in.

Mr Obama made his pitch in room 150, and a few minutes later, in room 152, it was the turn of Mrs Clinton.

While Mr Obama’s speech was casual, his room spartan apart from a few, small posters stuck up almost as an afterthought, Mrs Clinton opted for the full razzmatazz: podium, red and blue balloons, music and a huge election banner.

And while Mr Obama, who seemed tired, attracted only about 200 overwhelmingly young supporters to his room, Mrs Clinton, less stilted than in recent speeches and with an ace up her sleeve in the form of Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to be elected to Congress, filled her room to capacity with about 300 people from across the generations.

The discussion afterwards was less about which of the two was the more pro-Israel but which was more electable.

Vivian Saper, 52, a doctor from California attended both performances but was won over by Mrs Clinton. “She seemed far more commanding. She was clearly very seasoned. There was a higher energy in the room.”

The evening had begun with the annual gala dinner of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most powerful lobby in the US. More than 6,000 people attended, with candlelit tables stretching the length of two football pitches and Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama at opposite ends.

Ali Abunimah, author and co-founder of the website The Electronic Intifada, said he had met Mr Obama half a dozen times at Palestinian and Arab-American community events in Chicago, the last of which had been in winter 2004 when he was standing for the Senate.

A list of dignitaries took 30 minutes to be read out and included half the members of the Senate and half the House of Representatives.

While Jews make up only 2 percent of the US population compared with the 13 percent of African-Americans, they provide many of the activists in the Democratic party and much of the finance. About three-quarters of American Jews vote for the Democrats, partly because of an inherent liberalism and partly for historical reasons, in particular Franklin Roosevelt’s encouragement of minorities.

Professor Allan Litchman, a political historian at Washington’s American University, said: “The Jewish vote is not important in the general election but it does matter in primaries. It could be as high as 5 percent - 10 percent in New York, Illinois and Ohio.”

Prof Litchman, who has successfully predicted the outcome of presidential elections for the last 20 years, said he had no doubt the Democrats will win next year. Although it was too early to say who the Democratic candidate would be, he felt Mr Obama had cleverly positioned himself to the left of Mrs Clinton, particularly in his opposition to the war in Iraq.

When it comes to the subject of Israel, Mrs Clinton’s stance is clear, based in part on Bill Clinton’s pursuit of a Middle East peace settlement throughout his eight years as president. But Mr Obama’s has been more ambiguous.

Ali Abunimah, author and co-founder of the website The Electronic Intifada, said he had met Mr Obama half a dozen times at Palestinian and Arab-American community events in Chicago, the last of which had been in winter 2004 when he was standing for the Senate. He said Mr Obama had told him: “Hey, I’m sorry I haven’t said more about Palestine right now, but we are in a tough primary race.”

In the end, it may be Mr Obama’s lack of experience that is the decider for many.

Eric Cohn, 20, a student at the University of Oklahoma, had been enthusiastic about Mr Obama before he heard the speeches. Afterwards he was more hesitant. Did he still favour Mr Obama? “I think so,” he said. “Yes, still Obama, but I am open.”

Related Links

  • Obama loses ground in vital campaign rally, Ewen MacAskill for The Guardian (14 March 2007)
  • How Barack Obama learned to love Israel, Ali Abunimah (4 March 2007)