Ignoring Arab-Americans in '08?

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Bill Pugliano / Getty Images

An Arab American walks in Dearborn, Mich.

In 2003, Arab-Americans believed they were at a positive turning point. Most of the presidential candidates appeared in person or via satellite before that year's Arab-American Institute's National Leadership Conference. It was a far cry from two decades earlier, when a major candidate, Walter Mondale, very publicly returned donations from a group of Arab-American businessmen, saying it was his campaign's policy not to accept them from the ethnic group.

But 2003 may have been the high-water mark. At the same conference, held in Dearborn, Michigan, last weekend, none of the top-tier candidates from either party showed up. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, was the most prominent candidate to attend. Several Democrats submitted videotaped messages, but none of the major Republican candidates bothered to send even those. The absence of major candidates from both sides of the political fence underscores the perception among many Arab- and Muslim-American leaders that they've been deemed politically expendable — even as some of the 2008 election's key issues (such as the Iraq War, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the debate over balancing domestic security and civil liberties) are of particular interest to their community.

Arab-Americans constitute a relatively marginal share of the U.S. electorate — just 1.3 million voters, according to independent polling firm Zogby International — but make up a potentially crucial voting bloc in battleground states like Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. They account for roughly 4% of all voters here in Michigan, home to the highest concentration of Arab-Americans. They tend to be better educated and more affluent than the U.S. population at large, and in recent years have swung between Republican and Democratic presidential candidates. "This is a community that is very much up for grabs, that's waiting to be wooed," says George Salem, a longtime Republican and the Arab-American Institute's chairman.

None of the campaigns offered a significant explanation for their candidates' absence from this year's conference, or their failure to accept an invitation to participate in a question-and-answer session via satellite. A spokeswoman for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat, said he had previously scheduled campaign events in Iowa.

Part of the blame may lie with the Michigan primary, which has been scheduled for Jan. 15. Some Democratic candidates have pledged not to campaign in Michigan because the primary's new early date violates Democratic National Committee rules. Some candidates have pulled out of Michigan's primary altogether. However, Democratic officials in four other early-primary states — New Hampshire, Nevada, Iowa and South Carolina — have made an exception for the Arab-American Institute's conference, permitting Democratic candidates to attend the event if they wish. Given that exception, says Jim Zogby, the institute's president, whose brother heads the Zogby poll, says of the candidates: "They should have been here."

The conference opened Friday with speeches from two lower-tier candidates who did attend: Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a Republican, and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, a Democrat. On Saturday, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton delivered a brief videotaped message, as did Barack Obama and John Edwards on Sunday. Speaking in person at the Doubletree Hotel in Dearborn, Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, drew applause from the conference's 600 or so participants with the observation that the field of Republican presidential candidates "looks like America in the 1950s, and when they open their mouths, sound like they're in the 1850s." Bill Richardson played up his diplomatic credentials and pledged that, if elected, he would swiftly close the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and more vigorously engage Iran and Syria.

The conference had an unmistakably Democratic tone, reflecting the fact that nearly 40% of Arab-Americans identify as Democrats (about 26% identify as Republican, down from 38% a decade ago). Particularly pronounced was the anxiety of many Arab-American Republicans. In 2000, President Bush won significant support from many Arab-American groups after expressing sensitivity toward racial profiling of Arab-Americans during the second presidential debate. But following his Administration's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, that support began to erode.

Randa Fahmy Hudome, a longtime Republican consultant, reflects that alienation. She points to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's recent television ads, in which he says, "It's this century's nightmare: jihadism — violent, radical, Islamic fundamentalism. Their goal is to unite the world under a single jihadist caliphate. To do that, they have to collapse freedom-loving nations like us." Hudome complained about the ad to the Romney campaign. Now, she calls herself a "DR" — a "Disaffected Republican" — and is considering supporting Barack Obama.

Many people at the conference said that in order to win the support of Arab-Americans, candidates on both sides of the fence must at least show a willingness to meet with them in person. Still, despite the absence of major candidates, Rebecca Abou-Chedid, the institute's national political director, says the conference wasn't a failure. She points to heightened interest in the institute's grassroots voter campaign, dubbed "Yalla Vote 2008" — Arabic for "Let's Go Vote 2008." Still, she says, "For a community that's still fighting to have a place at the table, you don't want to feel like you're going backwards if part of your measurement is how many presidential candidates attend."