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Jewish Hoosiers Torn Over Who Can Best Rebound From Bruising Campaign

After watching the presidential race unfold elsewhere for months, Indiana’s Jewish Democrats could be basking in their political moment in the sun — if only they could stop cringing.

On the one hand, the arrival of the state’s first competitive Democratic presidential primary in decades gives Jewish liberals a rare shot at relevancy in a Republican stronghold that nearly always backs the GOP in the general election. But with their party in turmoil over its protracted primary battle and the latest salvos from the controversial former pastor of frontrunner Barack Obama, backers of both Obama and rival Hillary Clinton voiced uneasiness about their candidates’ overall prospects, while communal insiders said many Jewish voters remain doggedly undecided.

“I probably won’t make up my mind until I walk into the voting booth and look down at the names and think of what to do,” said Rabbi Jonathan Adland, leader of the 150-year-old Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, the city’s only Reform synagogue. The rabbi estimated that among the Democrats in his congregation, Obama is currently edging out Clinton by a small margin.

Among likely primary voters, Obama is running in a statistical dead heat with Clinton in Indiana, according to a poll of polls released by CNN on April 25, while his once-substantial lead over the New York senator in North Carolina, which also holds its primary May 6, has narrowed to 5%, according to SurveyUSA data released April 29.

Although the mathematics of the nominating process still overwhelmingly favor Obama overall, the tightness of the upcoming races has exposed jitters about the senator’s general election viability in the wake of the recent dust-ups over his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

“I’m in a depression; I’m very worried about the Wright blow-up,” said Sheila Suess Kennedy, an associate professor at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis who endorsed Obama in a recent column in The Indianapolis Star. An erstwhile member of the GOP who served in the administration of a Republican mayor during the 1980s and turned Democratic in 2000, Kennedy said she knew of several Republicans who had been planning to cross party lines under Indiana’s open primary rules to back Obama but were now hesitating in the wake of the Wright controversy.

Obama’s campaign has been pummeled by the fallout from Wright’s recent decision to defend himself in several high-profile television appearances. The pastor drew a new round of negative attention with a number of controversial comments, including laudatory remarks about Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and his suggestion that the government could have intentionally spread the AIDS virus in minority communities.

Obama in turn, hit back hard against Wright: “When I say I find these comments appalling, I mean it,” the senator told reporters while on the campaign trail in North Carolina. “It contradicts everything I am about and who I am.”

In the wake of the conflagration, Obama’s campaign has worked at damage control in the Jewish community — immediately sending off an April 29 e-mail to Jewish reporters with the text of Obama’s response to Wright — while Clinton’s team sought to capitalize, with its own e-mail outlining her “strong support from Jewish voters nationwide,” sent the same day. (Meanwhile, the presumptive Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, worked to build Jewish support while campaigning in South Florida. At an April 28 fundraiser with pro-Israel donors, he promised backers he would, as president, “ensure the independence and freedom of the State of Israel.”)

According to Michael Papo, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis, the Hoosier state has roughly 13,000 to 14,000 Jewish residents in total, with the vast majority living in the capital. Although Jewish residents account for less than 1% of the state’s overall population, the community includes a number of high-profile Democrats with links to Clinton and to her most prominent supporter in the state, Senator Evan Bayh. They include Nancy Jacobson, a prominent Democratic fundraiser (and wife of pollster Marc Penn) who currently serves as a senior adviser to the Clinton team. But in perhaps a small indication that party leaders are increasingly ready to turn their attention to November, real estate moguls Bren and Melvin Simon — prominent party fundraisers who held a major event for Clinton last spring — are focusing their current attentions on hosting a May 4 fundraising brunch for the Democratic National Committee.

In conversations with the Forward, both Clinton and Obama supporters expressed mixed feelings about the state of the primary race.

“I’m personally supporting Obama because I believe he can bring our country together, but I’m torn,” said Greg Silver, an Indianapolis-based attorney and Democratic activist who chaired Senator Paul Simon’s 1988 presidential campaign in Indiana. “It’s going to be very close.”

Carol Stein, who hosted a late-afternoon coffee at her home with Clinton surrogate Ann Lewis on April 28 — one in a series of house parties being proffered by the Clinton campaign in both Indiana and North Carolina — said the crowd of 50 people included a number of undecided voters.

As if underscoring a sense of uncertainty as to how Jewish voters ultimately might lean, Stein’s event was attended, she said, by Judy Orentlicher, the wife of 7th Congressional District candidate David Orentlicher, who has publicly backed Obama.

Stein insisted that her support, at the least, was steadfast.

“I don’t know enough about him to feel comfortable voting for him,” she said, referring to Obama. Clinton’s “just a broad with a brain, and I like her very much.”

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