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Mrs. Clinton and the Jewish vote in N.Y.

It is exceedingly dangerous to predict the outcome of a political contest, particularly if you are letting your forecast be determined by the way one segment of the electorate seems to be going. That group could change its views. Other factors may come into play. And on and on.

Yet I simply can't resist being persuaded by John Zogby's recent polls of the anticipated Hillary Clinton-Rudy Giuliani run for the US Senate that indicate Mrs. Clinton isn't going to win. Mr. Zogby (the pollster who came the closest to predicting the outcome of the 1996 presidential race) has disclosed new findings that show Jewish voters in New York would now give Clinton only 52 percent of their vote.

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"A Democratic candidate ordinarily needs 70 to 75 percent of the Jewish vote to win in this state," says Zogby.

Some observers have speculated that a lot of New York Jewish voters were unhappy over the way the first lady sat silently in Ramallah as the wife of Yasser Arafat seemingly accused Israelis of poisoning Palestinian women and children. It was some 12 hours later before Clinton rebuked Mrs. Arafat for what she called "inflammatory statements."

A concurrent poll by the highly regarded Zogby shows that 36 percent of Jewish voters felt "less favorable" toward Clinton after her performance in the Mideast. There were 12 percent who said they were "more favorable" and 52 percent who "felt no differently" toward Clinton. She obviously had been damaged by her Mideast trip.

I once had an up-close look at how careful a public figure must be with the Mideast question - and how he can get burned politically by the way his words have been received in the US Jewish community.

Back in 1979, President and Mrs. Carter had invited a half- dozen newsmen and their wives for dinner in their family quarters. Then, after dinner, the president chatted with us informally for a couple of hours. It was extraordinary - almost as if we'd all slipped off our shoes and were having a country get-together. The Monitor's Richard L. Strout, who'd been covering presidents since Harding, said he never heard of a president ever meeting with members of the press in such a friendly fashion.

Mr. Carter told us we could ask any question. We did. He talked and talked. I felt at times he was on the brink of telling too much - that he ought to be protected from his frankness. At one point he moved into assessing the always controversial Mideast subject. Already, Carter had made quite a mark for himself by pulling Israel and Egypt together in the Camp David accords.

Carter had put one restriction on how we could use his words: He couldn't be quoted directly; only general impressions could be used. We agreed - or I thought we did. No one verbally dissented.

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So most of us reported afterward along these lines: that Carter was continuing to push for Palestinian autonomy while insisting, as always, that Israel's existence be guaranteed. And he was hopeful Israel would come around very soon to the conclusion that it is essential to give the Palestinians some kind of autonomy even though not a separate state.

But one newsman from a major New York newspaper had obviously decided he wouldn't go along with the ground rules. We woke up the next morning with a page 1 headline and story about Carter expressing a pro-Palestinian position. And there were Carter quotes - in the article - even though no one was seen taking notes. Had the reporter hidden a tape recorder? It seemed the only answer.

The quotes were accurate - but taken entirely and very unfairly out of context. To quiet the storm of protest Carter and his press secretary had to take a lot of time to deny the story and once again explain his carefully balanced approach to the Mideast problem. Those of us at that evening gathering who had played by the rules were irate over the shoddy performance of the colleague who cheated. And it was the last gathering of this kind that Carter held - most understandably.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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