CHICAGO -- Seeking to woo Jewish votes and contributions, Sen. Barack Obama told an audience in Chicago yesterday that he considers Iran "one of the greatest threats to the United States, Israel and world peace" and pledged to try to end Iran's uranium-enrichment program.
As he criticized the Bush administration's Iraq policies, the Democratic presidential candidate suggested that the danger posed by neighboring Iran has grown in recent years because of U.S. policy in the Middle East.
"One of the most profound consequences of the administration's failed strategy in Iraq has been to strengthen Iran's strategic position, reduce U.S. credibility and influence in the region, and place Israel and other nations friendly to the United States in greater peril," Obama, an Illinois Democrat, told a regional gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a major pro-Israel lobbying group.
The group will hold its national conference this month in Washington, where Obama will court donors one-on-one. His campaign had been seeking a friendly audience for a major policy speech on U.S.-Israel policy.
Speaking to about 800 of the committee's members in Chicago, Obama reaffirmed his support of Israel as voters consider the early presidential field. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, also a Democratic presidential candidate, spoke to the group in her home state Feb. 1.
Obama made no mention of The Sun's revelation yesterday that he has white ancestors who owned slaves. A spokesman said Obama would not be taking media questions.
Racial issues will again be at the forefront tomorrow, when Obama is to deliver the keynote address at an Alabama event commemorating the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march. Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, will also attend the event.
Obama was to headline a labor rally in Chicago this morning.
John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, said research suggests that it is not uncommon for Jews to account for as many as 20 percent of the donors in a presidential primary.
"Jews are strong Democrats as a group and are a very important source of money for presidential candidates," he said. "This is a pretty significant financial constituency."
Green said Jews can also play a key role in swing states such as Florida, though they make up a small fraction of the electorate.
Green said that Obama might struggle to differentiate himself from Clinton on social issues but that his early opposition to the war in Iraq could help.
"Jews are particularly opposed to President Bush's positions in Iraq. [Clinton] has had a little bit of a different policy position on the war in Iraq, and that is a place where he could distinguish himself from her," Green said.
Rabbi Ira Youdovin, executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, said some Jews were initially supportive of efforts to remove Saddam Hussein when there were reports that he had weapons of mass destruction and that Israel could be a target.
"Today, there is far less approval and a sense that maybe the war wasn't a good idea," Youdovin said.
In one of many lines that drew applause, Obama called for "fully funding military assistance" for Israel and continued work on missile defense programs. "And when Israel is attacked, we must stand up for Israel's legitimate right to defend itself," he said.
John McCormick writes for the Chicago Tribune.