St. Paul, Minn. — Despite spin-control efforts by party leaders, the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate set off ripples of anxiety at this week’s Republican National Convention here, especially among Jewish delegates who worry that her views on foreign policy are a blank slate.
“There has been a lot of consternation all day,” admitted Fred Zeidman, a Houston businessman and co-chair of Jewish outreach for the McCain campaign, when asked about the impact of Palin’s selection on Jewish voters.
Concern was so great that the McCain campaign arranged for Palin to meet privately here Tuesday with different groups to answer their questions, including leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The result was a “good, productive discussion
on the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” according to AIPAC spokesman Josh Block.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who delivered a passionate endorsement of McCain laced with a few swipes at a Democratic candidate he dismissed as a “gifted and eloquent young man,” attended that meeting.
In his address Lieberman told delegates that “I’m here to support John McCain because country matters more than party” and defended the GOP nominee’s support for the Iraq war.
He also offered an endorsement of Palin’s nomination.
“Governor Sarah Palin, like John McCain, is a reformer who has taken on the special interests and reached across party lines,” he said. “She is a leader we can count on to help John shake up Washington.”
After Lieberman spoke, delegate Ash Khare of Warren, Pa., said Lieberman “brought the whole thing together. He’s talking about Republicans, Independents and Democrats and you know what, he’s acting like a senior citizen, a class monitor. That’s what he is trying to do — bring everybody together and put the country first.”
In the convention hall, Jewish Republicans — echoing party talking points — were emphasizing Palin’s administrative experience as the mayor of a small town and as governor of Alaska, a post she has held since December 2006.
Marcia Klompus of Honolulu, the director of scheduling for Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, said that as a person with first-hand knowledge of the job of a governor she could attest to the challenges it presents.
“There is no comparison between what a governor does and what a member of Congress does,” she insisted. “A governor has far more experience in running an administration. Whether she has been governor one or 15 years, she has all the experience she needs. She is a very accomplished leader. I have met her at different functions and heard her speak and I said she would be a wise choice for vice president.”
Ellyn Bogdanoff of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the co-chair of the McCain campaign’s Jewish outreach in her community, said when asked about Palin: “McCain is who we will be voting for and I have confidence in his pick and confidence in her. He would not pick somebody who does not follow his thoughts and ideas. The vice president is not who people vote for.”
But several political scientists contacted by The Jewish Week said that the nomination of a relatively unknown governor with no foreign policy experience, a strong pro-gun, anti-abortion record and rumored connections to an Alaska secessionist group could derail what was looking like a promising GOP effort to woo Jewish voters in November.
So could columnist and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan’s claim that Palin and her husband were supporters of his 1996 presidential bid, a claim the McCain campaign denies.
The Palin nomination is “a killer for the Jews,” said Allan J. Lichtman, an American University political historian and author of several books on presidential prognostication. “She has no experience or record on Israel; that’s a disaster in terms of Jewish voters. And Jewish voters tend to react against what they see as fringe politics.”
Kenneth Wald, a University of Florida political scientist who studies Jewish politics, said Palin’s thin resume will neutralize McCain’s biggest advantage with Jewish voters — his aura of experience.
“And [Sen. Joe] Biden will reassure those voters,” Wald said, speaking of the Democratic vice presidential nominee — who has made foreign policy a priority during his decades in the Senate.
“It’s more her extremist connections than the lack of experience that will give pause to many Jewish voters,” said L. Sandy Maisel, a Colby College political scientist. “And we won’t know her views on Israel at all; we don’t even know if she can find Israel on a map. This has to give pause to anybody who supported McCain because of his experience and his judgment.”
Maisel was referring to reports Palin spoke to and welcomed a meeting of the Alaskan Independence Party, dubbed by some a secessionist group and whose founder, Joe Vogler, once said “I’m an Alaskan, not an American. I’ve got no use for America and her damned institutions.”
Palin also faced a potential pastor problem on Tuesday when the Politico Web site reported that her church recently hosted David Brickner, the controversial founder of the missionary group Jews for Jesus.
Brickner told the congregation that terrorist attacks in Israel are God’s “judgment of unbelief” for Jews who reject Christianity. The Politico reported that Palin was in the church that day.
Johns Hopkins political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg gave Palin high marks for her intelligence and said “she seems to know more about economics than our current president and possibly more than the other candidates. It’s possible she will look better in the days to come.”
But at first blush, he said, her selection “suggests McCain was incautious. He turned his vice presidential choice into a ‘hail Mary’ pass, as if he was behind; in fact, he’s almost even in the polls. So why take a big chance in selecting a complete unknown, and then finding out more about her?”
But at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Jewish Republicans expressed confidence that Jewish voters will look beyond Palin’s pro-life stance, her membership in the National Rifle Association and her belief in the teaching of creationism in public schools — positions anathema to most liberal Jews.
“In politics, rarely do we get what we want 100 percent of the time,” said Saulius “Saul” Anuzis, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. “The reaction [to Palin’s selection] has been great. The base has been motivated. She was a perfect pick for the Republican conservative base, for sportsmen, for blue collar and independent voters — especially the kind I have to go after in Michigan.”
Kerry Casserly of Memphis said she is pro-life and is not opposed to the teaching of creationism in public schools.
“I love the ticket and believe in drilling for oil in Alaska,” she said. “This is a woman who has a Down Syndrome baby and has been a crack governor and she can step into the presidency if she has to. Women are a force to be reckoned with.”
But Jewish Democrats reacted to the Palin announcement with barely concealed glee.
“It’s a gift from heaven,” said Ira Forman, director of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC). “Every day, there’s another revelation about how Gov. Palin is not ready for prime time.”
Mik Moore, co-founder of the pro-Obama Website JewsVote.Org, said there is a “core group” of Jewish voters who will “support any Republican candidate. But there is a significant 10 to 20 percent that can go in one direction or another. And I think there’s no question McCain’s judgment in choosing Palin will drive a lot of those voters into the Obama-Biden camp.”
Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, insisted that Palin’s lack of foreign policy expertise “doesn’t change the equation [because] people vote for the President.”
In a press release the independent Republican group distributed a video interview with Palin in her Juneau office. While she made no mention of Israel or foreign policy, the group noted that a tiny Israeli flag was attached to a window frame in her office.
“People will get to know Sara Palin and how she looks at the issues,” Brooks said. “But there is a contest between John McCain and Barack Obama and there is a big difference on the issues. The issues are very clear and that is why Barack Obama has problems in the Jewish community. He’s pulling at the lowest level of any modern Democrat.”
Brooks declined to speculate on the percentage of the Jewish vote the McCain-Palin ticket would garner, but he said he was confident it would surpass the 25 percent George W. Bush received in 2004. He said the percentage of Jews voting Republican has increased every year since 1992 when it was 11 percent, “which means Democrats are losing support because people like Ed Koch and Joe Lieberman are finding it increasingly difficult to stay comfortably in the Democratic Party.”
Susan Kone, 43, of Manhattan, an executive recruiter and a RJC volunteer, said a troubling concern for her is the “Islamic fascist threat. … It scares me when Barack Obama says Iran is a small country and we shouldn’t be afraid of it. He wants to exchange pleasantries with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier who vowed to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth. I see historical parallels between him and Hitler. It scares me when a candidate for a major party denies that threat. And even if you had a deal with him, how do you deal with a partner you can’t trust?”
Staff writer Stewart Ain reported from St. Paul; James D. Besser is Washington correspondent.