Noshing it out on the New York campaign trail

First lady courts powerful Jewish voting bloc - she'll need it to win

Go past the bagels and cheesecakes to a backroom at Ratner's deli on Manhattan's Lower East Side - a district that is home to thousands of Jews. There, hanging on a wall, are photos of such political legends as Robert Kennedy, Jacob Javits, and Nelson Rockefeller - all displaying their best photo-op smile.

In New York, no matter what your political party, part of getting elected means publicly noshing on blintzes, knishes, and bagels in neighborhood hangouts like Ratner's. It's a symbolic, yet significant, acknowledgment that the Jewish vote is one of the most powerful voting blocs in New York - one especially crucial for Democrats.

Thus, as Hillary Rodham Clinton begins a four-day swing through New York this week, she will be meeting with key Jewish leaders and may be moving closer to a Kodak moment at Ratner's. Her standing with Jewish voters will undoubtedly help her determine whether she will make a run for the US Senate - and, ultimately, whether she could beat the probable GOP nominee, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

While the Jewish vote in New York traditionally falls Democratic, it is not a monolithic bloc, and a Clinton-Giuliani matchup would present a particularly complicated dynamic. Mr. Giuliani maintains strong ties with elements of the Jewish community, and Mrs. Clinton's call in the past for an independent Palestinian state in the Mideast could work against her with some voters.

Thus analysts will be closely watching a speech she is scheduled to give at the United Jewish Appeal, a charity group. "If she chooses, she could make it into a forum where she could annunciate her views on the Middle East," says Sheldon Silver, Democratic Speaker of the state Assembly.

Although Jews make up only 9 to 12 percent of the voting population, they are considered a key constituency because of their interest in politics, generous donations, and high voter turnout. Normally, Democrats have the natural advantage because many Jewish voters are social liberals. But there are conservative Jews, who frequently vote Republican.

In a Quinnipiac College Poll last week, Jewish voters favored Clinton by 55 percent to 36 percent for Mr. Giuliani. The overall survey showed the race narrowing, with Clinton only ahead by 5 percentage points compared to an 18-point lead in February.

A HOST of influences will shape how Jewish voters cast ballots. Many tend to support abortion rights, favor gun control, and are sensitive about race relations. "The mayor has done very well getting Jewish votes," says Seymour Reich, former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "But many in the Jewish community are concerned about the lack of sensitivity on race relations and the handling of police minority issues."

The mayor counters that the New York Police Department has become more restrained in its use of force. He also notes that, under former Mayor David Dinkins (D), police were slow to respond to minority violence against Jews in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.

For Giuliani, attacking Clinton to win Jewish votes presents some risk. During last year's senate race, incumbent Alfonse D'Amato (R) ran ads accusing his Democratic opponent, Chuck Schumer, who is Jewish, of being too liberal. "Jewish voters saw that as an attack on themselves," says Joseph Mercurio, a Republican campaign consultant.

But, he adds, Mr. Schumer's ads highlighting Mr. D'Amato's anti-abortion stand cost the Republican Jewish voters. D'Amato ended up with only 22 to 25 percent of the Jewish vote - and lost.

In fact, one lesson Giuliani might learn from the race is that Jewish voters can quickly discern when politicians are pandering. Though D'Amato was instrumental in helping Holocaust victims recover assets from Swiss banks, he trumpeted his efforts in ads. "He seemed to overplay the issue," says Mr. Mercurio.

The battle to win Jewish voters may turn the most on Israel. A year ago, Mrs. Clinton called for Palestinian statehood.

"Clinton definitely has a negative strike with the comments about the Palestinian state," says Rabbi Avi Shafran of Agudath Israel, a conservative group. "It will be counted against her by part of the Jewish community which sees a Palestinian state as more of a threat than a bridge to peace."

"Nonsense," counters former Mayor Ed Koch (D). "Eighty percent of Jews support a Palestinian state and so do I." He predicts Clinton will capture the bulk of the Jewish vote if she runs.

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