The Australian

By David Weisbrot

Is Obama losing core supporters?

Herman Cain could never quite distinguish Libya from Afghanistan or ''Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan'', but even he understood it was critical to express unqualified support for Israel. While Jews represent only 2 per cent of the total population of the US, they have the highest voter participation rate of any demographic group, with up to a 4 per cent share of the electorate in the past five presidential elections.

Among the 10 states holding Republican primaries on March 6 — Super Tuesday — Massachusetts, Ohio and Virginia have a significant concentration of Jewish voters, and all are likely to be key battleground states in the November presidential election.

Although President Barack Obama has continued America's strong — and virtually unconditional — support for Israel, Republicans claim to sense a growing vulnerability on his part with Jewish voters.

In recent years, the Republican congressional leadership has cultivated a closer relationship with conservative counterparts in Israel, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. This has complicated Obama's efforts to persuade Israel to compromise on such issues as Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and breathe life into the flagging peace process.

Mitt Romney has accused Obama of having ''disrespected Israel and undermined its ability to negotiate peace . . . (and) also violated a first principle of American foreign policy, which is to stand firm by our friends''. Consistent with his staking out the ultra-conservative position on most issues, Rick Santorum has indicated his support for an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, as well as the building of settlements.

And, despite disappointing results in recent contests, Newt Gingrich's campaign remains afloat on the back of $US10 million ($9.29m) in donations from billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a strong supporter of right-wing Israeli politicians and a noted opponent of the generally accepted two-state solution.

Among Republican contenders, only maverick libertarian Ron Paul has taken a different line. As part of his small-government strategy, Paul has called for the ending of US military assistance to Israel. Paul also has a tricky issue to deal with regarding racist and anti-Semitic comments published in his eponymous newsletter some years ago. He has vehemently denied being the author, but has declined to identify who did write the offensive material.

It is not only the GOP that is wondering whether Obama may be losing his grip on the Jewish vote. Late last year, the Democratic National Committee met in Chicago to talk about its three main areas of concern for this year's campaign: jobs, healthcare, and Jewish voters. It has established a ''Jewish outreach program'' headed by Obama confidantes and senior advisers Ira Forman and David Axelrod, with an active campaign designed to set the record straight on Obama's policies towards Israel.

In 2008, 78 per cent of the Jewish vote went to Obama, with only black voters supporting him more heavily (95 per cent). By way of contrast, Obama received 66 per cent of the Hispanic vote, 63 per cent of the Asian vote, 56 per cent of women's votes, 54 per cent of Catholic voters and only 25 per cent of white evangelicals.

Obama's vote continued the long trend of overwhelming Jewish support for Democratic candidates, with Al Gore receiving 79 per cent in 2000 and John Kerry 74 per cent in 2004.

In fact, the last Republican to win a plurality of the Jewish vote was Warren Harding, in 1920, and it is an ominous sign for Democrats when they fail to win a lopsided share. Ronald Reagan received 39 per cent of the Jewish vote in crushing Jimmy Carter in 1980, and 35 per cent in doing the same to Walter Mondale in 1984.

While polls suggest the President's support among Jewish voters has fallen since 2008, Obama continues to remain significantly more popular among American Jews than the American population at large, with 54 per cent giving Obama positive marks, compared with his general approval rating in the low 40s.

Similarly, an American Jewish Committee poll conducted in September recorded increasing levels of dissatisfaction with the President among Jewish voters, but Obama still trounced all of the leading Republicans in the head-to-head match-ups, with only Romney exceeding 30 per cent of the vote.

In what is expected to be a close and bitterly fought election, Obama can ill afford much slippage in the Jewish community from the lofty heights of his 2008 vote, especially in states such as Ohio, Virginia, Florida and Pennsylvania.

Although increased tensions in the Middle East could quickly change things, polling shows Jewish voters listing Israel as fifth among their priorities, ranking below the economy, healthcare and education.

Obama would thus do well to focus on ''jobs, jobs and jobs'' between now and November. As a former Clinton White House official put it: ''Jews vote like everybody else — only more so.''