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How the Mideast affects local politics

Earl Hilliard, a five-term Democrat from the Seventh District of Alabama, was upset in the primary runoff on June 25 by Artur Davis, a political newcomer 26 years his junior. Both candidates are black; and the district is preponderantly African-American. Everyone concerned has been trying to puzzle out the surprise outcome.

It was noted that Mr. Davis raised and spent more money. Mr. Hilliard had ethics problems. Davis accused the incumbent of neglecting the district and failing to provide leadership. And then there was the issue from nowhere – the Middle East.

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Hilliard had voted against a House resolution endorsing Israel's fight against terrorism. Earlier, he had visited Libya and, on his return, was accused of cuddling up to dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Jewish-American groups made contributions to the Davis campaign. Arab-American groups responded by giving money to the Hilliard campaign. Anonymous leaflets turned up in the district linking Davis to "Jewish money."

The Israeli-Palestinian crisis may not have been a decisive reason for Hilliard's defeat, but it surely played a role in the campaign, and it is likely to play one in future campaigns. And not only campaigns for national office. Foreign policy does not generally claim the attention of governors, but 42 of them have joined in policy statements organized by Democrat Gray Davis of California and Republican George Pataki of New York expressing solidarity with the people of Israel.

And that is not all about the Middle East and American politics. President Bush's speech on June 24 calling for a new Palestinian leadership was generally regarded as tilting toward Israel. It drew rave reviews from Christian conservatives and Jewish groups alike. The Republicans are clearly trying to wean Jewish voters away from their historic identification with the Democratic Party, going back to Roosevelt and Truman, who was the godfather of the state of Israel.

A recent Gallup poll showed that 66 percent of Republicans, but only 40 percent of Democrats, sympathize with Israel more than with the Palestinians. The Democratic Party has mounted a campaign of conference calls with Jewish leaders seeking to win back support. But there appears to be more sympathy for the Palestinian cause among Democratic lawmakers, starting with the Black Caucus, than among Republicans.

It would be unusual for a foreign policy issue, even one as consuming as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to generate a significant shift in party loyalty. But an issue like the Middle East could cause a marginal shift that could help to tilt a close election.

• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.


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