Two of the leading Democratic candidates for president will compete head-to-head tonight for money and support from the same pro-Israel group.
Senator Clinton and John Edwards are scheduled to appear at a dinner for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square.
Mrs. Clinton will deliver the keynote speech, while Mr. Edwards is expected to work the crowd at the cocktail reception before she speaks, making a face-to-face encounter unlikely, but not impossible.
"When it comes to important gatherings like this, there is going to be a lot of pressure on the major candidates to not let one of their competitors have the room to themselves," a Democratic strategist, Daniel Gerstein, said.
Tonight's event is the first time any of the 2008 candidates have competed for attention in the same room since they launched their campaigns in earnest. It is also an important illustration of just how much stock all of the presidential candidates, Democrats and Republicans alike, will put in the pro-Israel community, particularly for campaign dollars.
Just last week, Mr. Edwards and two Republican presidential candidates, Senator McCain of Arizona and a former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, staunchly defended Israel while speaking to a conference. And Governor Pataki, a Republican who left office last month and backed away from his plans to run for president earlier this week, also is expected to make an appearance at the Aipac dinner.
A Democratic political consultant who worked on President Clinton's re-election campaign, Hank Sheinkopf, noted that the Aipac dinner always draws a parade of politicians.
"New York is the ATM for American politicians. Large amounts of money come from the Jewish community," he said. "If you're running for president and you want dollars from that group, you need to show that you're interested in the issue that matters most to them."
Mrs. Clinton, who has opted out of the public campaign financing system, has tapped into the circuit of influential Jewish donors for years and has strong support in the community. A spokesman for Aipac, Joshua Block, said yesterday that the senator and former first lady has "an extremely consistent and strong record of support on issues that are important to the pro-Israel community."
"She is an extraordinary leader on those issues in the United States Senate," he said.
Mr. Block said Mr. Edwards has a "strong record from his time in the Senate." He pointed out that the former senator from North Carolina spoke last year at Aipac's policy forum in Washington and that Mrs. Clinton spoke at the same event the year before.
Mr. Gerstein, an adviser to Senator Lieberman of Connecticut, said that while Mr. Edwards may not be able to outmuscle Mrs. Clinton for contributions from the pro-Israel community, making an appearance at the dinner is a wise political decision.
"It's a smart move on his part to show that he's not conceding anything and that he's going to compete," Mr. Gerstein said. "Even more importantly, it's an opportunity to credential himself with an important national security constituency group."
Many view Mr. Edward's light foreign policy résumé as his biggest vulnerability.
Tonight's dinner comes nearly two months after Mr. Edwards tapped a former Michigan congressman and vocal critic of Israel, David Bonior, to run his campaign. The candidate's choice of Mr. Bonior elicited a puzzled response and put a damper on support from the pro-Israel community.
Yet Mr. Edwards, who is appealing to anti-war advocates with his push to withdraw American troops from Iraq, took a hawkish stance on Israel last week while speaking via satellite to a conference in Herzliya, Israel. "Under no circumstances can Iran be allowed to have nuclear weapons," he said. He later suggested that America should take military action against Iran if necessary, noting that "all options must remain on the table."
Indeed, how to deal with Iran is likely to be the next majority foreign policy conundrum the 2008 presidential candidates face.
While Mr. Edwards and Mrs. Clinton have different positions on how to deal with the Iraq war, each has used harsh language on Iran.
Both favor starting diplomatic discussions with the regime — an argument that runs counter to President Bush's current policy.