By DOUGLAS BLOOMFIELD
The race for the Republican presidential nomination has come down to the Big Dough vs. the Big Mo. Mitt Romney may have the money but Sen. John McCain probably has the momentum. And the votes. Especially among Jewish Republicans.
McCain is the clear favorite of Jewish Republicans now that former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani has dropped out.
And he has the L-factor – not the liberal label Romney tries to stick on him, but Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat turned independent who has been an effective campaigner and fundraiser among Jews.
Match that with McCain’s 25-year pro-Israel voting record and you have the Republican with the best chance of returning his party to the Reagan-era level of at least 30 percent of Jewish voters pulling the GOP lever. In the last five presidential elections it has ranged from 9 to 24 percent.
While Jewish Democrats have good reason to be worried about McCain, they also have strong ammunition to muster against him.
Whereas McCain and Lieberman are in lockstep in their support for the Iraq war and hardline toward Iranian nuclear ambitions, most Jewish voters strongly oppose the Iraq war and don’t want one with Iran.
Lieberman has said he and McCain are cool to the Bush administration’s Mideast peace initiative, although polls indicate most American Jews would like to see a more activist American approach.
Democrats can be counted upon to remind voters that McCain has said we could be in Iraq for another hundred years, while they want to start bringing home the troops in the first hundred days of the next presidency.
Even more upsetting to many Jews will be his promise to use Bush Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito as his models for appointing “strict interpretation” judges to federal bench.
With the judiciary already tilting toward the far Right, that could have a dramatic impact on a range of issues most Jewish voters care about, including church-state separation, abortion and civil liberties.
MCCAIN, UNLIKE recent Republican nominees, appeals to Jewish voters on issues that have earned him the enmity of his party’s conservative base – immigration reform, campaign finance reform, stem cell research, climate control and torture.
Those issues and his reputation for candor have identified him as a maverick and obscured his otherwise staunchly conservative record, which he has stressed in appearances before the party faithful. Once he locks up the nomination, that record will prove an inviting target for Democratic strategists – particularly Jewish Democrats.
Conservatives may have no problem with his positions on the 3-G’s – guns, gays and God – but most Jews will. He’s against gun control, opposes same sex marriage and has said “the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation.”
Another critical factor will be who the Democrats nominate. The hardcore Right may intensely dislike McCain but they harbor an irrational, visceral hatred for Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Republican leaders expect – and some Democratic leaders fear – her candidacy could unite the GOP behind McCain.
If Sen. Barak Obama is the Democratic standard bearer look for right-wing Jews to step up their hate campaign against him and efforts to brand him the Muslim Manchurian candidate.
After the disastrous experience with Dick Cheney, voters are likely to take the vice presidential selection a lot more seriously this year.
In addition, if he wins, McCain would, at 72, be the oldest man ever elected president. He brushes off criticism of his age by trotting out his 95-year-old mother, but his grandfather and father, both Navy admirals, died at 61 and 70, respectively.
McCain may pick former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, 19 years his junior, whose greatest strength and McCain’s greatest weakness is among Bible Belt conservatives. Picking Huckabee could give McCain a major boost on the religious Right but could cost him dearly among Jews, especially moderate swing voters.
The former Baptist preacher, who has said he does not believe in evolution and would like to change the Constitution to reflect God’s law, has been running interference for McCain on the campaign trail by siphoning off conservative votes from Romney.
Giuliani has been mentioned as a possible running mate, but as a thrice-married supporter of abortion and gay rights who spent over $49 million and managed to get only one delegate, he has little appeal to social or fiscal conservatives.
Lieberman, who was the Democrats’ 2000 vice presidential nominee, is not interested – been there done that, he said. Besides, his domestic-social voting record is far too liberal for the GOP.
McCain worries Jewish Democrats, and with good reason, but they also have strong weapons in their arsenal as they fight a highly conservative
Republican whose “maverick” image appears more flimsy by the day.
The writer is a veteran political analyst based in Washington.