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Wooing the Jewish Vote



Sept. 29, 2004

© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.


WEB EXCLUSIVE: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6083061/site/newsweek/


Both campaigns are courting this small but influential slice of the electorate. Can Bush win them away from the Dems?


By Arian Campo-Flores

  Sept. 23 - Florida's Palm Beach County—land of butterfly ballots and electoral chaos—was back in the thick of political battle on Wednesday. The target this time: Jewish voters. At Temple Beth El in West Palm Beach, Rudy Giuliani gleefully lambasted Sen. John Kerry for his alleged flip-flops on Iraq, drawing guffaws and a few standing ovations from an audience of about 500. “This would be funny if it was on the Letterman show,” said Giuliani. “It isn’t funny when we’re talking about the war on terror.” The former New York mayor then made an emphatic case for re-electing President Bush. “He has stood up to terrorism and will continue to do so no matter how much they ridicule him,” Giuliani asserted. “He knows [the terrorists] only respect strength.” To conclude, Giuliani pressed his hands together in prayer. “Do me one favor, please,” he told the congregation. “Please don’t make it so close this time.”

  At almost precisely that moment, across town at the Palm Beach County Convention Center, Kerry was wooing Jewish voters just as ardently. He recounted for the crowd the time he’d flown over Israel and, seeing from above how closely girded it was by countries like Egypt and Jordan, realized its fragility. After the rally, Kerry met privately for almost an hour with a group of about  65 Jewish officials and community leaders. He averred his staunch support of Israel and bemoaned what he considered its more precarious position after years of reckless foreign policy under Bush. Then he moved beyond the Middle East, taking questions on everything from health care to the Supreme Court. “I think it’s outstanding that someone running for president would take the time to meet with a relatively small group of Jewish leaders to hear their opinions,” said Nan Rich, a Florida state representative, who pressed Kerry to be more vocal on women’s issues. “You could just sense that he was really hearing what people were saying.”

  Both campaigns have good reason to listen. Though Jews make up only 4 percent of the nation’s electorate, they usually turn out to the polls in droves. What’s more, Jews are concentrated in key battleground states—most importantly Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. A five-point shift in Florida—where, despite Giuliani’s pleas, the victory margin may well be whisker-thin again—could signify more than 20,000 votes. In 2000, Bush won a meager 19 percent of the traditionally Democratic Jewish vote, compared to 79 percent for Al Gore (Reagan’s 38 percent in 1980 marked a high point for the GOP). But this time around, largely because of Bush’s unflagging support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Republicans think they can sway a chunk of that electorate to their side. “We can make the difference in the election,” says Adam Hasner, Florida chairman of the Bush-Cheney Jewish outreach coalition. “We’re making the Democratic Party defend votes that it has historically taken for granted.”

  Take Ricki Black. Raised in a Democratic household in New York, the Boca Raton resident voted for Gore in 2000. But she changed her registration to Republican at Temple Beth El just before Giuliani spoke and plans to vote for Bush in November. “[September 11] changed everything,” says Black, 45. Now, “terrorism is the No. 1 issue.” As her Republican husband, Greg, 50, put it, “We can either face Armageddon or take the fight to the terrorists.” Israel is another front in the same war, in the couple’s view, and they say Bush has proven he can lead by acting decisively and surrounding himself with steely and competent advisers.

  Recent surveys show that Ricki Black has company—though not much. In an American Jewish Committee poll released Wednesday, Kerry garnered 69 percent of the Jewish vote, compared to 24 percent for Bush—a five-point uptick from the president’s performance in 2000 but a seven-point drop from his showing in an AJC poll last December. There were other troubling findings for Bush: 52 percent of those surveyed disapproved of the president’s handling of the campaign against terrorism, 66 percent disapproved of his handling of the war in Iraq and 57 percent think that the threat of terror has grown as a result of the war.

  Those findings aren’t dissuading Republicans, though. They made clear at their national convention in New York last month that they were determined to court Jewish voters. A Holocaust survivor delivered the benediction. At a gathering at the Waldorf-Astoria, Sen. Sam Brownback addressed a group of Orthodox Jews, lauding the president for rejecting Palestinian demands for a “right of return” to their old homeland. And the campaign distributed a glossy pamphlet touting Bush as “a friend of the American Jewish community” and detailing a litany of meetings, declarations, and policies to prove it.

  Since then, Republicans have cranked up their Jewish outreach efforts. The campaign is dispatching surrogates like Giuliani and former New York mayor Ed Koch to champion the president’s support of Israel—by refusing to deal with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, for instance, and recognizing permanent Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Groups like the Republican Jewish Coalition are organizing educational forums and sending e-mail blasts attacking Kerry for some of his past comments, such as his description at one point of the Israeli security fence as a “barrier to peace.” Soon to come: direct-mail and ad campaigns aimed at Jewish voters.

  Not to be outdone, the Democrats are ramping up their own outreach program. The campaign sends out weekly e-mails to 10,000 Jewish supporters and holds regular conference calls with community leaders. Kerry has written op-eds in Jewish publications like the Forward. Surrogates including Sen. Joe Lieberman and Kerry’s brother Cameron, who converted to Judaism, are criss-crossing the country to speak at synagogues and recreation centers. They’re vouching for Kerry’s record of support for Israel—which partisans on both sides agree is strong—and highlighting his positions on issues that have traditionally wed Jews to the Democratic Party: support for abortion rights, social justice and the separation of church and state, among others.

  Will all of this bustle yield anything? Virtually no one would argue that a wholesale realignment of the Jewish vote is underway. Instead, the campaigns are battling over slivers of the electorate that could prove decisive in tightly contested states. Some movement may well occur. “I believe that the president has much more support from the Jewish community than these recent polls seem to indicate,” says Jack Rosen, president of the nonpartisan American Jewish Congress. Many Jews “trust this president on his policies toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Then there’s what Steven Windmueller of Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles calls “pockets of change” in the community: an increase in young orthodox families that are more open to the Republican Party; an influx of conservative Jewish immigrants and a sizeable group of independents who may swing based on security concerns.

  Others, however, argue that the Democrats will at most suffer only a slight slippage. As long as Kerry passes the litmus test of supporting Israel, Jewish voters can then pivot to the panoply of other issues that matter to them, like Supreme Court nominees and stem-cell research. On these matters, “the Democrats certainly have had a tremendous amount of support in the Jewish community,” says Michael Adler, president of the nonpartisan Greater Miami Jewish Federation. “It’s one of the communities that still doesn’t shy away from being characterized as liberal.” And notwithstanding Bush’s backing of Israel, says Kenneth Wald of the University of Florida, plenty of Jews harbor profound misgivings about the administration’s foreign policy: its disengagement from the Mideast peace process, its raising of regional tensions by waging war against Iraq. Further, he argues, many Jews are uncomfortable with Bush’s embrace of the Christian right, whose solidarity on the issue of Israel strikes some as a cynical, self-interested ploy.

  With both campaigns aggressively targeting Jewish voters, they’ll have plenty to ponder. As the community prepares for the Yom Kippur fast of atonement that starts on Friday night, “we’re at the most reflective time of the year,” says Rabbi Cheryl Jacobs, who met with Kerry at the Palm Beach County event. “That is what this campaign is about right now. We’re looking at the past four years and we need to decide how we’re going to move forward.”  The impact of that decision will surely be felt in November.




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