CAMPAIGN CONFIDENTIAL

By E.J. Kessler

Published May 27, 2005, issue of May 27, 2005.

Speech, Speech: Republican and Democratic officials strutted their rhetorical stuff on the podium of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s policy conference this week, providing a snapshot of the oratory of their respective parties — and of the officials’ varying skills.

Speaking at an event Sunday night called “Party Playbooks: The Republicans, The Democrats and the Future of Foreign Policy,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean neatly did what he was required to do in that situation: He pledged his undying fealty to the America-Israel security relationship.

Calling radical Islamic terrorists “the single greatest threat the United States and Israel face today,” Dean vowed that “Israel’s fight against terrorism is also America’s fight” and promised that “when it comes to American support for Israel and its security, there are no critical differences between Democrats and the president.”

Identifying a GOP vulnerability, Dean garnered the most applause when he called on America to confront Saudi Arabia about “the poison [it] is putting out around the world by financing the teaching of hatred of Americans, Christians, Jews and moderate Muslims,” adding that “the president’s friendship with the Saudis must never cloud America’s judgment.”

President Bush’s former press secretary, Ari Fleischer, stood in for Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, who went to Israel to bury his grandfather.

Fleischer, a lightweight crowd pleaser, rehashed the jokes he has been peddling to Jewish audiences for the past two years. For example, does anyone not know by now that Fleischer’s mother, despite her son’s best arguments, remains a liberal Democrat?

Fleischer also told the now familiar tale of how he reported to Texas in 1999 to work for candidate George W. Bush, only to find that the natives never had heard the name “Ari.”

“Is that like ‘J.R.’?… ‘R.E.’?” people would ask.

To be fair, however, Fleischer delivered the goods for his former boss, recalling various instances in which the president vowed to fight antisemitism. Fleischer told of how, after Bush toured Auschwitz, the president stated that the death camp serves as” a reminder of the modern-day current need to fight terror wherever it is.”

“It was a message he wanted the world, especially Europe, to hear loud and clear,” Fleischer said.

Fleischer’s best line was a rare nod across the aisle: “The Hebrew word for ‘Scoop Jackson’ is ‘Joe Lieberman,’” he said. “We need more Joe Liebermans.”

All told, though, Fleischer spoke for perhaps three times as long as Dean did, prompting jokes about whether Fleischer thought it was his responsibility to be the keynoter.

At the conference’s gala banquet Monday night, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat, provided some feisty pro-Israel sound bites, especially for someone representing many voters who are highly critical of the Jewish state. She called the birth of Israel “the great shining moment of the 20th century,” pronounced Prime Minister Sharon’s leadership “remarkable” and described the evacuation of settlers from Gaza as “gut-wrenching.” She declared that those who contend the Israeli-Arab conflict is about occupation are spouting “absolute nonsense” because “it’s about the fundamental right of Israel to exist.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, beat the low expectations that political observers had of his speechifying. Fresh off a trip to Israel, Frist told a story about visiting Hadassah Hospital: A trauma nurse poured into his hand the contents of a jar of ersatz shrapnel that had been picked out of suicide bombing victims. Frist also related his connection to bombing victim Dr. David Applebaum, murdered with his daughter and five others in a café in 2003 on the eve of his daughter’s wedding. In 1997, on a previous trip to Israel, Frist toured an emergency room that Applebaum subsequently headed.

A well-crafted piece of rhetoric, delivered with an (uneven) attempt at varied intonation and feeling, the address represented a nice save for the frequently wooden Frist after his disastrous turn at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s winter meeting in Florida. (One listener described the Florida address as being so dull, it acted “like a vortex of negative energy.”)

Frist’s improving delivery ought to be noted by his rivals for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, such as Senator George Allen of Virginia, who did not attend this week’s Aipac event.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, for his part, showed why some Nevadans have dubbed him “Dreary Harry.” Reid, a laconic and plainspoken Democrat, meandered and swallowed his words as he talked of visiting Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, on a recent trip. He also made the mistake of lauding Israel’s vice premier, Laborite Shimon Peres — not the most popular figure with the more hawkish Aipac crowd. Reid said it was a “thrill” to talk to Peres, and he insisted that Peres was among the wisest politicians he knows. But Reid clearly was preoccupied with the deal on judicial filibusters that Senate moderates had finalized that day. “The republic is saved!” he cried as he commenced his address. “The nuclear option is off the table.”

* * *

Candidate, Candidate: Several folks seeking office, or higher office, made the scene at the banquet, including Rhode Islanders Sheldon Whitehouse, a former attorney general, and Secretary of State Matt Brown. Both are hoping to oust Senator Lincoln Chafee, a Republican. Also present were Pennsylvania State Treasurer Bob Casey, looking to dislodge Senator Rick Santorum, a Republican; Texas attorney Barbara Radnofsky, a Democrat aiming for the seat of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican, and Maryland House members Ben Cardin and the as-yet-unannounced Chris Van Hollen, Democrats vying for the seat being vacated by Senator Paul Sarbanes. The banquet was the place to be: More than half of both houses of Congress attended the repast, which featured sesame-encrusted salmon and kosher wine.

* * *

Tom DeLay, Shoo-in: The ethical questions about lobbyist-funded overseas trips swirling around House Majority Leader Tom DeLay are not damaging the Republican’s re-election chances in his Texas district, according to several Houstonians quizzed at the Aipac conference.

“He’s popular in his district,” said Lawrence Finder, a Republican.

Activist Richard Bamberger said he would be raising money for DeLay, whom he called “a strong supporter of our issues.”

“When you live in a glass house, you shouldn’t throw rocks,” Bamberger said of DeLay’s Democratic critics.

Asked if DeLay would win re-election, former Aipac president Melvin Dow said, “Probably.”

* * *

Fast Response: State Rep. David Orentlicher of Indianapolis had a quick retort when asked by Campaign Confidential whether he has any good races in his state.

“We have the 500 next week,” he said.

Speaking about moving fast, Orentlicher reported that Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, known as a centrist, “is setting up his campaign committee” for a shot at the 2008 Democratic presidential nod. “Some people who worked for him in past campaigns are moving to Washington,” Orentlicher said.

* * *

Odd Couple: Former Aipac president Lonny Kaplan, a New Jersey trial lawyer and Democrat, told the Forward he is “helping to arrange fund-raising events around the country” for the 2006 re-election bids of senators Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat, and Santorum, one of the Senate’s most conservative GOPers. Apparently, when it comes to pro-Israel activism it takes a village.



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