Washington - The afternoon before Bernard Rapoport was scheduled to introduce Senator Hillary Clinton to an audience of well-heeled Jewish activists and donors, he turned his attention to her most imposing 2008 rival and had a backroom chuckle at her expense.
Rapoport — a former insurance executive from Waco, Texas, who at nearly 90 years of age is an elder statesman among Jewish Democrats — held court Tuesday after Senator Barack Obama pressed his case before the National Jewish Democratic Council. The group was sponsoring an inaugural policy conference at a synagogue on Washington’s K Street this week, and amid a parade of seven presidential hopefuls, Obama had clearly impressed Rapoport, a longtime friend and supporter of the Clintons.
Grinning, with a decidedly mischievous glint in his eye, Rapoport polled his comrades about the Illinois senator, while Obama’s finance chair for Texas and Oklahoma, an efficiently perky woman named Adrienne Donato, handed Rapoport a business card and promised to be in touch. He then began, jokingly, to publicly consider Clinton’s introduction, which he promised would be frank. Exactly how frank, Rapoport did not say, but after leaving the thought suspended for a few minutes, he doubled back to what he would say to Clinton.
“The worst thing you can do,” Rapoport said, “is B.S. somebody.”
In the end, Rapoport supplied an effusive introduction. But more indicative of the overall mood of the three-day event were his hints the day before that he could, in fact, envision a nominee other than Clinton. The bevy of deep-pocketed, mostly older men in attendance publicly demonstrated strong ties to old political friends, while privately expressing doubts about the Democratic field. The buzzword was electability, with several supporters saying they are more committed to winning in 2008 than to any single contender.
Some conference attendees said they welcomed the possibility of a late entry into the race by Al Gore. Speculation about the former vice president ratcheted up this week with the report that some of his former fundraisers and supporters plan to meet in Washington next month.
“Frankly, I think that Al Gore would be the most formidable of all the candidates against any Republican,” said Larry Stempler, 57, a New Jersey-based attorney, who said he welcomed a potential Gore campaign.
Stempler, who said Biden was his personal favorite of the current crop of candidates, called the Democratic field “extraordinarily strong,” but acknowledged having reservations about both Clinton and Obama.
“I think Hillary has some issues with regard to being too programmed, and I think there’s a lot of anti-Hillary perception out there, and I think Barack has some issues with lack of experience and being seasoned,” Stempler said.
Several participants expressed the view that at least one of the current front-runners — Clinton, Obama and former vice-presidential candidate John Edwards — was likely to stumble. This view appeared to translate into more support for Biden and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson among attendees than their sluggish single-digit poll numbers would have suggested.
Democrats want to feel that “we have nominated the best candidate to win the general election, and we are not so personally involved or interested in the personal success of one of these candidates at the expense of the party,” said Michael Adler, a Miami Democrat who was an early supporter of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential bid and is now raising money for Biden, a longtime family friend.
The candidates used the forum to reiterate their pro-Israel loyalties, attack President Bush on foreign policy and attempt to distinguish themselves in a crowded field.
Edwards, a former North Carolina senator, called for American talks with Iran and Syria. Biden criticized the White House for reportedly blocking Israel from talking to Damascus. Both men criticized the Bush administration’s close ties to Saudi Arabia.
Obama faced questions about his support from segments of the Muslim community and his commitment to blocking Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
In response, he insisted that the United States could not ask Israel to “take risks” with its security. But, Obama added, the “status quo is not inevitable” and America should insist on some “tough” discussions “about how we’re going to arrive at what I think everybody wants, which is two states living side by side in peace and security.”
His comments drew applause.
Clinton generated a great deal of electricity in the room when she arrived Wednesday morning. And she seemed quite at ease, as she opened her remarks with general comments about Democratic Party values, rather than rushing to hammer home her support for Israel, as other speakers did.
Steve Grossman, the former chair of the Democratic National Committee, identified himself as a “passionate supporter” of New York’s junior senator, and described her as “electable.”
“She’s speaks to people, and I think she will speak to a whole generation of people who never would believe that a woman could achieve” such success, he said.
Others seemed to be torn between their close personal ties to Clinton and the appeal of other candidates.
Marc Winkelman, a businessman based in Austin, Texas who has donated to both Clinton and Obama and backed Senator Joseph Lieberman for president in 2004, attempted to explain Rapoport’s quandary.
“He looks at Barack, I think, and sees this guy who really is an inspiration to people,” Winkelman said. “But he has this history that goes way back with the Clintons. He has, I think, 100% confidence in her and because she’s running, he’s supporting her.”
Arthur Schechter, a longtime Clinton supporter who was appointed ambassador to the Bahamas by President Clinton, said he would continue to back the former first lady, although he saw parallels between Obama and President John F. Kennedy.
“I don’t think anybody who is supporting Hillary because they know ‘em and they love ‘em and they feel loyal to ‘em, would be supporting her if they thought she couldn’t do the job — I know I wouldn’t,” Schechter said, referring to the Clintons. “She’s demonstrated her own abilities in the Senate.”
Still, Schechter added, “the gender issue is an issue that is there.”
The hopefuls consistently stressed the need to end the war in Iraq, and restore America’s reputation through diplomatic efforts and moral leadership, especially in places like the Darfur region of Sudan, the mention of which consistently drew applause from the audience.
“I cannot and will not walk away from this issue,” Obama said. “I intend to show the world that when we say ‘Never Again,’ we mean it.”
Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, took it one step further.
“Sometimes, force is necessary,” Biden said, arguing that America should be prepared to intervene militarily. “If we move on Darfur, the rest of the world will not be able to stay behind.”
He seemed to revel in his willingness to go out on a limb, his tendency to be, at times, a little “too blunt.”
“By the way, a lot of people in my party don’t like what I have to say about Darfur,” the Delaware Democrat said, smiling.