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For Barack Obama, a careful courting of Jewish vote

The Democratic presidential hopeful has recalibrated his words about Israel and the Middle East peace process.

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"If we're measuring [Obama] against Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, and even to some extent [Sens. Joseph] Biden and [Christopher] Dodd, he's got a lot of catching up to do," says Mr. Rabinowitz, who says he is unaffiliated with any candidate this campaign season.

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One reason is simply that Senators Biden and Dodd, like Clinton and former Senator Edwards, have occupied the national stage longer than Obama has. "They have a tremendous head start because they're very well-known quantities in the community," says Rabinowitz.

Jews make up 2 or 3 percent of the US population, but they vote at disproportionately high rates and are major Democratic Party donors, according to analysts. In the New York primary, as much as 25 percent of the Democratic turnout could be Jewish, analysts say.

Jewish base of support in Chicago

Obama has lined up a number of prominent Jewish fundraisers, including Penny Pritzker, the Chicago billionaire and Hyatt hotel heiress, and Alan Solomont, a Boston business magnate. And he has deep ties in Chicago's Jewish community, Jewish leaders there say.

"There are a large number of people from the Jewish community who have been supportive of Barack for years and years, since he first ran for the state legislature," says Lynn Cutler, a former official in the Clinton White House who is a lead fundraiser for Mrs. Clinton in Chicago. "There is an enormous affection for him."

By one measure, Obama's efforts seem to be paying off. A March survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 2 percent of Obama's Democratic or Democratic-leaning supporters were Jewish, compared with 5 percent of Clinton's. When the survey was bolstered with new data from April, Obama had pulled even with Clinton, with Jews making up an equal share – 4 percent – of their bases of support.

Still, the Obama camp remains sensitive to its portrayal in Jewish websites and news organizations.

A few weeks ago, his campaign contacted at least one member of a panel that the Israeli newspaper Haaretz had convened to rate the candidates' attitudes toward Israel, according to Shmuel Rosner, the newspaper's chief US correspondent.

The panel of Israeli academics and former diplomatic officials had consistently ranked Obama last or second-to-last in a field of hopefuls from both parties. Obama's Chicago speech to AIPAC in March resulted in only a minor boost, placing him ahead of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska but well behind the top-rated names, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R), and Clinton.

The low rating reflected unease about Obama's shorter track record in foreign affairs and his support from left-wing Democrats who may be less sympathetic to a hard-line defense of Israel, says Mr. Rosner. The Obama campaign had "wanted to make sure the panel had read the Chicago speech, and they also sent some other quotes," says Rosner, noting that other campaigns had also contacted the panel, which calls itself The Israel Factor.

For many American Jews, a candidate's record on traditionally liberal social and economic issues carries more weight than slight nuances in their positions on Israel, says Ira Forman, executive director of the nonprofit NJDC and coeditor of the book "Jews in American Politics."

Obama has played as much to those mainstays of Jewish-American politics as he has to the issue of Israel's security, using speeches before Jewish audiences to talk about the civil rights struggle, global warming, and the genocide in Darfur. His early opposition to the Iraq war has also reverberated with Jewish Americans, who, according to Gallup polls, are more likely to view the war as a mistake than are Americans of any other faith.

Robert Seidemann, a semiretired business owner who pressed Obama for reassurances on his Israel views at the NJDC speech last week, said afterward that he was still on the fence about the Illinois senator.

"As a Jew, it's a little easier to support a Hillary or an Edwards, because their record on Israel has been proven," he said in a phone interview from his home in West Palm Beach, Fla. "It's more a lack of knowledge than it is a fear that his position is less than what I want it to be. We need to know more about him."

Lee Diamond, a social activist from Falls Church, Va., says he was sold on Obama from the moment he heard of the senator's early years as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago.

"I believe in the social justice values of Judaism," Mr. Diamond says. "He appeals to that because his whole career has been about public service."