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Armenian-Americans Split Over Who To Support In U.S. Race

Bellingham, Wash., June 28 (RFE/RL) -- The United States is a nation of immigrants, and politically, this heritage has created potent communities of minority voters who are often viewed as making up blocs sensitive to specific political stands on what they hold dear.

Among these communities, the half a million Armenian-Americans in the key state of California will certainly play a significant role in the outcome of November's presidential election.

The Armenian National Committee, an organization which represents Armenian interests in Washington, endorsed President Bill Clinton in 1992. This year, however, Armenian Americans are struggling with a difficult choice: whether to back Clinton, a Democrat, again for a second and final term, or switch to the likely Republican challenger, former Senator Robert Dole.

The choice is hard because Armenian Americans have traditionally voted for the Democratic Party candidate. However, they also know that they "have a good friend in Dole,'' says Armenian National Committee western executive director, Vicken Sonnentz-Papazian. Papazian told RFE/RL that Dole has strong sentimental ties to the Armenian community going back to his convalescence from nearly fatal wounds in World War Two. Dole's physician during those crucial years of recovery was not only an Armenian but a survivor of the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.

Even without the bloc of Armenian Americans, California is the biggest electoral prize of all 50 states. It is the most populous, the wealthiest, and it has the largest Congressional delegation. Historically, the candidate who wins in California wins the election. Clinton took California in 1992.

Dole has already been to California twice this month. He plans two more trips next month and one in August, just before the Republican Party convention. The convention will be held in San Diego, California, near the Mexican border. Dole's wife Elizabeth Dole, a prominent Republican in her own right, has also made a visit to California that was very important to Armenian Americans. She came to California to speak at the most significant event on the Armenian calendar -- the April 24th commemoration of the slaughter of millions of Armenians 80 years ago at the hands of a despotic Turkish regime, an event remembered by Armenians as the "Armenian Genocide"' and commemorated at the Armenian Genocide Monument in the Los Angeles suburb of Montebello.

In the U.S. Senate, Dole has been a staunch supporter of efforts to force Turkey to acknowledge the murders as genocide, something Turkey refuses to do, and Dole took prominent part in April 24th ceremonies in Washington.

The Armenian National Committee's Papazian said Dole "has been as good as you can get on Armenian issues."

But will the Armenian National Committee go against tradition and choose Dole over Clinton?

"It's not an easy decision," Papazian conceded. "This is going to be a tough call." He said an endorsement decision won't likely come before September, after the national conventions of the Republicans and the Democrats. The campaign, he noted, only really gets started in earnest then. Ara Khatchaturian, the editor of the English-language edition of the bilingual Armenian-American daily newspaper, Asbarez, told RFE/RL that, at this point, it is hard to say which way the community will lean.

But one thing is sure, Khatchaturian adds: "It seems that this year, more than any other year, the Armenians are going to be taken seriously."