MIAMI – Republicans are trying to seize on President Barack Obama's nuclear deal with Iran and strained ties with Israel's leader to cultivate Jewish voters, reasoning that a small shift in the margins could help them in battleground states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Democrats dismiss the effort as demagoguery from the right, saying that most Jewish voters will remain loyal to the left. The front-runner for their party's presidential nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, is among those supporting the agreement.
Congress will have a 60-day window to review the Iran deal and could pass legislation stopping Obama from lifting its sanctions on Iran. Republican debates, which begin next month, give GOP hopefuls a stage to keep the topic on the 2016 radar.
Obama said he hopes the debate on the deal would be "based on the facts, not on politics, not on posturing."
The Republican Jewish Coalition's Mark McNulty said the agreement to restrict Iranian nuclear development in exchange for sanctions relief is "the brainchild of Obama and Clinton, so it could be very appealing for a Jewish voter to consider a Republican in the White House."
Successful candidates, he said, will be able to tie Clinton to the deal, which she helped to initiate as secretary of state by starting secret talks with Iran.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and other GOP candidates are doing just that. "In the end, this should have been a confrontation between a superpower and an illegitimate third-rate autocracy," he wrote for Breitbart News. "Instead, the Obama/Clinton team settled for trading carrots and sticks and hoping for elusive signs of moderation from cruel theocrats."
For Clinton, the topic presents fresh challenges as her campaign tries to maintain strong ties to Jewish voters and donors focused on Israel's security.
The Democratic Party has consistently won broad support from Jewish voters. Since President Bill Clinton's first White House victory in 1992, Democrats have gained about three-quarters of the Jewish vote in presidential campaigns.
Obama faced tens of millions of dollars in Republican advertising questioning his commitment to Israel in 2012, but he won about 70 percent of Jewish voters. Democrats say most Jews are not single-issue voters: The economy and health care sway Jewish voters in greater numbers than the U.S. relationship with Israel.
Quinnipiac University pollster Peter Brown said that even if some Jewish voters turn from Democrats, "it's only going to matter in the swing states of Florida, and maybe Ohio and Pennsylvania," because of their large Jewish populations.
Donna Bojarsky, a Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist who has served on the board of several Jewish organizations, said Bill and Hillary Clinton's ties to the Jewish community run deep, from the former president's friendship with the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to Hillary Clinton's tenure in the Senate representing New York and four years as secretary of state.
"It will be much more difficult in any way, shape or form to say that they're not supportive of Israel," Bojarsky said.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who is Jewish, from South Florida and head of the Democratic National Committee, said Republicans opposing the deal are trying to "to score cheap political points in the Jewish community."
In a statement released by her campaign, Clinton said she supported the plan because it offered the U.S. the best possible way of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But in a gesture to Israel's security, she said any cheating by Iran would bring a quick return of sanctions and no options would be taken off the table, "including, if necessary, our military options."
She said Iran posed a "grave threat" to Israel and that the U.S. ally would need to be confident that it would be able to defend itself.
In an oblique reference to Obama's strained relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Clinton said if elected she would invite senior Israeli leaders to Washington "for early talks on further strengthening our alliance."
There are few signs that Clinton faces an erosion of support from Jewish voters. One of Clinton's top donors, Hollywood media mogul Haim Saban, for example, told TheWrap that "my support of Hillary, no matter where she stands on this one issue, is unshakable."
"It will only be a hindrance to her politics in the sense that it will create a talking point," said Alan Solow, a Chicago-based Democratic donor who backed Obama's campaigns and is supporting Clinton. He said Republicans will claim that Democrats and their presidential candidate are not pro-Israel "regardless of what the facts are."
Jane Eisner, executive editor of Forward, an influential national Jewish publication , said most Jewish voters are "looking for a certain level of commitment to Israel's security," then look to other issues to decide who gets their vote.
Eisner said the GOP is making some inroads on the Jewish vote because of the changing population, not politics. Orthodox Jews, who are conservative, are the fastest-growing segment of the community, she said.
Thomas reported from Washington.