Jewish Republicans Eyeing Kemp As Darling Candidate for 1996

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp dazzled a reception given in his honor by Jewish Republicans this week with a few minutes of good-humored, off-the-cuff remarks that displayed his knowledge of and connection to the Jewish community.

He talked about a 1972 trip to Israel during which he learned about Zionism from an American who had made aliyah, his visit to the sites of concentration camps in Poland, and the liberal democratic values he had been taught by Jewish activists over the years.

The charismatic Cabinet secretary, who has clashed repeatedly with President Bush over urban and economic policy, and who looks to be the favorite of the party’s conservative camp for a run in 1996, also recounted his longtime work for the freedom of Jews to emigrate from the former Soviet Union.

And, just for good measure, he threw in a sprinkling of Jewish and Yiddish words and the fact that his first girlfriend was the daughter of a rabbi, all to the delight of the hundreds at the gathering, which was sponsored by local Jewish Republicans and the National Jewish Coalition, a Republican group.

But above all, he stressed his deep commitment to the State of Israel. Holding up a button sported by most of the Jewish delegates at the convention, he said, “I don’t need to wear this. I’m a pro-Israel Republican down to the marrow of my bones. You don’t have to be Jewish to love Israel,” he said.

Fred Zeidman, one of the local Jewish Republican sponsors of the event, said his phone was ringing off the hook Wednesday night with people who had heard Kemp speak for the first time and were captivated by him, including a healthy sprinkling of Democrats.

“They were smitten” and said they would vote for Jack Kemp in 1996, he said.

Kemp’s appeal to Jews, said Zeidman, springs from his “absolute, unequivocal and unswerving support for Jews, Israel and for civil rights. And he’s down to earth, a populist.”

For Matthew Brooks, director of the National Jewish Coalition and an unabashed Kemp fan, Kemp is the bridge between Jews and the Republican Party.

“Jack Kemp puts a compassionate face on conservatism,” he said. “He shares the same social concerns as the Jewish community and applies Republican solutions.”

Brooks, who introduced Kemp as his “political rabbi,” said the housing secretary’s close ties to the Jewish community would give him a “tremendous springboard constituency in 1996.”

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