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Democrats’ Obama outreach starting with fellow Democrats

Marc Stanley, standing, the chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, with Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, and NJDC President David Harris at a Wahington fly-in for top NJDC activists, Sept. 8, 2011. (Courtesy National Jewish Democratic Council)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Democratic Party’s outreach to Jewish voters is beginning at home, with pep talks in recent and coming weeks scheduled for top donors and Jewish lawmakers.

Insiders acknowledged to JTA that they have to explain Obama’s record on Israel to the very foot soldiers expected to push the president’s message out to the community.

“We’ve got a lot of work on these things to do,” said a top campaign official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of how sensitive Jewish outreach has become. “On Israel, we have to get our message out.”

To that end, Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, arranged a meeting last week for about a dozen Jewish lawmakers with Vice President Joe Biden.

The National Jewish Democratic Council last week flew in activists to meet with top congressional officials, including Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the U.S. House of Representatives minority leader, and Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader.

This week, the Obama campaign is planning its third call this summer to Jewish party activists and sympathizers, and the DNC is planning to release an informational sheet on Obama’s Israel record in advance of Rosh Hashanah.

“A lot of people have said we were not aggressive enough in the past,” said a party activist who is familiar with the informational sheet, which was discussed at a recent meeting of the DNC’s finance committee in Chicago.

Last week’s meeting with Biden and a dozen or so Jewish lawmakers from both the House and the Senate was part of the effort to chart a new course.

The meeting was so sensitive that participants would speak of it only in the most general terms, and only one, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) — who himself has been critical of aspects of Obama’s approach to Israel — agreed to be identified.

Biden was chosen to make the pitch in part because of his long record of closeness to Israel, meeting participants said.

“He’s a special person, he’s smart and hardworking, he knows the issues, he’s a very good friend of Israel,” Engel told JTA. “It’s always an honor to talk with him.”

Choosing Biden to make the pitch, however, underscored the president’s problem: The vice president has the better reputation on Israel.

“His knowledge is encyclopedic, his passion is genuine, his kishkes are real when it comes to fighting for Israel,” said a congressman who was at the meeting but asked not to be identified.

Asked if he would use the same descriptors for Obama, the congressman laughed.

“Let me put it this way: In all of his abilities and reputation, Biden adds to what the president brings to the table,” the unnamed congressman said. “The team of Biden and Obama are truly an extremely intelligent, sophisticated and committed duo confronting Israel’s enemies and Israel’s challenges as her most important and dearest friend.”

Breaking through the perception that Obama, unlike Biden, does not have a feeling in his “kishkes” — or guts — for Israel is a sign of the uphill battle facing Democrats, insiders said.

Republicans say the emphasis on Jewish outreach underscores the president’s problems in the community.

“The fact that they have to spend time and resources shoring up what is normally a solid Democratic core constituency underscores the challenges they are facing,” RJC director Matt Brooks told The New York Times.

The NJDC distributed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s praise of Obama for intervening to save the lives of Israeli diplomats besieged in Cairo over the weekend. The group also is noting Obama’s pledge to veto any Palestinian attempt to secure statehood recognition this month through the United Nations.

It is touting, too, what Israeli and American officials have described as unprecedented closeness on missile defense and intelligence sharing, as well as maintaining promised levels of defense assistance to Israel in the face of a budget crunch.

Republicans counter that such assistance should be par for the course for any president, and the RJC’s Twitter account has created a hashtag to mock such talk: Obama Lowered Expectations.

In addition to defending Obama’s Israel record, the Democrats’ pushback strategy involves emphasizing the president’s stance on social and economic issues. There was a largely successful White House push to get the Jewish groups that deal with social issues to endorse much of the jobs creation plan Obama presented to a skeptical Republican-led House last week.