Santorum seeks Jewish vote in his tough Nov. match-up

Sen. Rick Santorum is aggressively pursuing support from the Jewish community as his tough November match-up with Democratic state Treasurer Robert Casey Jr. draws closer.

Sen. Rick Santorum is aggressively pursuing support from the Jewish community as his tough November match-up with Democratic state Treasurer Robert Casey Jr. draws closer.

The Republican junior senator from Pennsylvania was scheduled to meet last night at Haverford College with Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet political prisoner who later became deputy prime minister of Israel.

Santorum’s forum with the icon of Soviet Jewry was billed as a “conversation” on religious freedom, an issue Santorum has championed as co-chairman of a congressional working group on the subject. It also sent a signal to Israel’s most ardent supporters that Santorum is with them.

Sharansky is a powerful symbol of right-wing Israeli politics, and his 2004 book The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror has been influential among neoconservatives in the Bush administration.

The Haverford event, moderated by leading neoconservative Daniel Pipes, was just the latest example of Santorum playing up his long-standing support for Israel during the campaign season. It will not be the last.

The senator surprised colleagues last week when he unsuccessfully tried to amend a defense authorization bill with a measure designed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The amendment was rejected after the White House and many senators opposed it on the grounds that it could disrupt U.S.-Iranian negotiations.

“The amendment runs counter to our efforts and those of the international community to present Iran with a clear choice regarding their nuclear ambitions,” Jeffrey Bergner, assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, wrote to Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-Va.). “This amendment, if enacted, would shift unified international attention away from Iran’s nuclear activities and create a rift between the U.S. and our closest international partners.”

Some in the pro-Israel camp disagreed with Santorum’s strategy or timing, but the substance of his amendment has support among hawks. And the episode allowed him to reiterate his tough stance toward Iran, a nation of great concern to Israel and its friends because of its potential nuclear capability.

Hawkish support for Israel figures to help Santorum not only with donors and any remaining undecided voters in Pennsylvania’s Jewish community but with his base among evangelical Christian voters, who have increasingly become fierce advocates for Israel in recent years.

Activists in Pennsylvania’s Jewish community say that even if Santorum is placing more emphasis on Israel lately his support is nothing new.

“It’s not as if he’s a Johnny-come-lately to this issue,” said Robin Schatz, director of government affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. “Senator Santorum has really been a leader in terms of pro-Israel work in the Senate.”

Santorum has a Religious Freedom Day celebration planned for today with several lawmakers and a variety of religious leaders. His working group on the topic meets about once a month when the Senate is in session, according to a Senate Republican leadership aide.

“Religious liberty is a huge passion of his because he thinks it’s the first right, the first freedom. Without this freedom all the other ones are in trouble,” the aide said.

Santorum’s worldview embraces Israel as a model for other democracies in the Middle East, according to Ken Davis chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Davis, a Jewish activist, said Santorum’s positions should make him attractive to voters for whom Israel’s security is the top issue.

“Those in our community who think for themselves and recognize the importance of the issue will support the senator, and he deserves the support because he’s been there all along,” Davis said.

But Jewish voters have traditionally sided with Democrats because of their domestic policies, meaning Santorum gets mixed reviews in the Jewish community.

“He’s very good on some of the issues that are important to us and not so good on others,” Schatz said.

Even if he cannot win over Jews who side with Democrats on domestic issues, Santorum’s support for Israel is helping him raise money. He ranks 10th among lawmakers in donations from pro-Israel groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, though it is impossible to track money from individual pro-Israel donors accurately.

“His beliefs here are the driving force, not the money — though they are certainly not mutually inconsistent,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College. “Only about 2 percent of the voters are Jewish — not huge, but they are important disproportionately as funders and fundraisers.”

In late April, Santorum sponsored a Senate resolution recognizing Holocaust Remembrance Day, even though it is Pennsylvania’s other Republican senator, Arlen Specter, who is Jewish.

Next month he plans to host a “Jewish Leadership Summit” on Capitol Hill to discuss “foreign policy and religious-freedom issues.” Invitees include White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Specter, Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, the lone Jewish Republican in the House.