FOREST HILLS, N.Y. — Today’s election in New York’s 9th congressional district has Republican Bob Turner facing off against Democrat David Weprin, but on the campaign trail Monday in Queens the words Obama and Israel were heard almost as much as Turner and Weprin.
The race to replace former Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner is too close to call, with Republicans trying to frame the contest as a referendum on President Barack Obama — although turnout is usually low in a special election — and Turner and his supporters are hoping to send a message to the White House on both economic and foreign policy issues.
Weprin, a state assemblyman campaigned at a senior center, held a rally at his Forest Hills headquarters and greeted voters at a subway stop, while Turner — a retired media executive — held a rally with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. At both events the issue of Israel, as well as the economy, was the focus of the candidates and their supporters. Weprin is an Orthodox Jew, while Turner is an observant Catholic, and both groups are heavily represented in the district. Despite being a heavily Democratic district, Israel has become one of the biggest issues in the race for Jewish voters who are upset at President Obama’s call to return to Israel’s pre-1967 borders.
Giuliani, standing with Turner outside the Forest Hills train station, spent a large portion of his comments talking about Israel. He said a Turner victory would have the White House “thinking about a new policy with regard to the state of Israel.”
“This would send a signal much stronger than just his district. It would say that within his own party many Democrats are very concerned that he is not giving enough support to the state of Israel and he is balancing too much in favor of the Palestinian Authority,” Giuliani said.
When asked if he was surprised that the issue had become such an important one in the race when his opponent is Jewish, Turner acknowledged that he and Weprin’s views on Israel are similar, but it’s about the president’s stance on Israel.
“It’s not about my position or his (Weprin) which are pretty identical, it’s the president’s position and if you are with the party or against it, simple as that and will this district, which is surprisingly overwhelmingly Democratic, will they go along with the president and be able to be taken for granted as it were or will they send this message of protest and dissatisfaction,” Turner told ABC News.
Giuliani did not hesitate to criticize Weprin, saying he has a “willingness to follow anything the Obama administration wants him to do or say” on the Israel issue.
At his rally, Weprin was flanked by City Council speaker Christine Quinn and Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., among other supporters. They linked Turner with the Tea Party, John Boehner and Eric Cantor, and said Turner can’t be trusted to protect popular entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, adding that the race is about “preserving” those programs.
However, Israel was also a focus and Weprin made it clear that that he is a strong supporter, pointing out that he’s been there eight times and said Turner’s Israel advocacy is politically motivated.
“You’ve heard a lot from my opponent’s supporters about his commitment to the state of Israel. As far as I know his commitment to the state of Israel started about a year and a half ago when he first ran against Anthony Weiner,” Weprin said. “Israel won’t have a stronger supporter than me in the House of Representatives.”
Quinn said Weprin has “never wavered in his commitment to the state of Israel and never, ever will.”
“We need someone who’s going to go to Washington and fight on a national level and in an internal level within our own party to make sure that everyone who calls themselves a Democrat is as good on Israel as David is,” Quinn said.
The race is too close to call, but in a Siena poll released Friday, Turner was leading Weprin among likely voters, with a 50-44 percent margin. The same poll found 43 percent of voters approving Obama’s job performance while 54 percent disapproved. The numbers reveal a potentially embarrassing loss for Democrats to be a very real possibility. Both parties, as well as outside groups, have poured money into the race. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent more than $500,000 in television ads in the district. Both former President Clinton and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have also recorded robo-calls on behalf of Weprin.
New York Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf called the tight race a “bellwether” for Obama, saying a Weprin loss would send a message to Jewish voters nationally and that the reaction of voters in Queens has been “extraordinary.”
“There are three things driving this: Obama, Israel and economics. The district is heavily Jewish, but also heavily Catholic, but not the Jews that Democrats and the White House are used to dealing with, much more conservative, more religious, more center-right, not liberal, and the Catholics are the very people that Obama needs to get back to get re-elected,” Sheinkopf said. “It’s not good for the Democrats, but this is a bellwether election because it frees Jews across the country to be more pro-Israel and it tells the Democrats nationally that they are in for some trouble.”
The White House Monday denied that the race is any sort of referendum on the president or his policies, instead citing small turnout and the impact of Anthony Weiner’s scandal on the race.
“Special elections, small turnout, circumstances involving why the special election is taking place all have an impact on races like that. I will simply point you to a statement that the prime minister of Israel made just the other day about the historic level of assistance and cooperation and friendship that President Barack Obama has shown Israel,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Thursday.
Despite the numbers, Crowley sounded confident, saying that all members of the state legislature from Queens county are Democrats and “that didn’t happen by accident.”
“We know how to win elections and we know how to win special elections in particular,” Crowley said.
Israel was also on the minds of voters in the district. Shimi Pelman, an Orthodox Jewish supporter of Weprin’s, said he would never vote for Obama solely on the Israel issue. However, he sees Turner as a “Johnny Come Lately” on the issue and thinks Weprin will be able to convince the White House to change its position. He acknowledged that many of his friends and neighbors feel differently and in these last hours before they go to the polls he’s trying to convince them.
“If we lose David Weprin, we lose a powerful voice. The president is more likely to listen to someone in his own party,” Pelman said. “I recognize and listen to my friends and relatives more than my enemies and David (Weprin) has been a proven friend to Israel.”
Across the street from Turner’s event in Forest Hills at the Shai hair salon, Charlotte Adomaitis was getting her hair done and said that for her the race was more about economic issues and she trusts Turner’s resume more to turn the economy around and that what Weprin says “rings hollow.”
“It just doesn’t seem like he (Weprin) is addressing issues of today. Turner’s business background rings true, as if he really knows how to do something. It’s not just rhetoric it seems like he knows how to do things,” Adomaitis said.
Despite Giuliani’s focus on national issues during his event with Turner — he even called the president’s job’s plan “warmed over spit” — he said he wasn’t “auditioning for a national campaign right now.” He said he still had not made up his mind about whether to enter the 2012 race or whether he would endorse a candidate, saying he has “no timetable” and he has been focused on Sunday’s tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
He did sound like he could be a contender at Monday night’s presidential debate, though, when he compared Rick Perry and Mitt Romney’s views on Social Security with his own.
“I know there’s this whole debate, do you call Social Security a Ponzi scheme, which I guess Gov. Perry did, or do you say it’s bankrupt like Gov. Romney did? So they are fighting, ‘Is it a Ponzi scheme or is it bankrupt?’ I don’t know what the difference is between the two things, but here’s the truth. If you are 45 years or younger, if we don’t straighten our Social Security you’re not going to collect it,” Giuliani said.
ABC News’ Mary Bruce contributed to this report.