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On the Campaign Trail: As Gop Forces Battle for Control, Jewish Republicans Look to Future

When George Bush lost the 1992 race for the White House, Jewish Republicans predicted a bloodbath between the GOP’s moderate and right wing as they fought for control of the party.

Four years later, as thousands gathered here for their nominating convention, both sides are claiming victory in the battle.

Republican Jews say the message coming from the convention hall proves that they won their quest to distance the party from the cultural war embraced by the wing of the party dominated by Pat Buchanan and the Christian Coalition.

For their part, leaders of the party’s right wing point to the platform adopted here as proof that the party has not budged from its pro-life, pro-school prayer cultural agenda.

The direction of the party is especially critical to Jewish Republicans, who tend to be economic conservatives and social moderates. Many Jewish Republicans were turned off by the party after right-wing forces dominated the 1992 convention in Houston.

Believing that Bob Dole’s election as president in November rests with moderate swing voters, Republican Jews are now locked in a new battle to shape the party’s message.

Like other party moderates, Republican Jews say the recipe for success is simple: Dole and his running mate, Jack Kemp, must ignore the platform and focus on his economic plan.

With the party hoping to unite its warring factions as it looks toward Election Day, moderates and conservatives have sought to make peace — at least in public.

Pat Buchanan, who threatened to break with the party after his exclusion from center stage of the convention, has endorsed the Dole candidacy.

Jewish Republicans and the Christian Coalition also are trying to bridge the gap that has often divided their forces.

Pat Robertson, the founder of the grass-roots advocacy group, and Ralph Reed, its executive director, mixed with Jewish delegates and activists at a reception co-sponsored by the National Jewish Coalition, the pre-eminent Republican Jewish organization.

But the pledges of cooperation and goodwill between the GOP’s wings could not mask deep fissures that teemed below the surface in the convention hall.

Prime-time convention speakers included moderates such as Gen. Colin Powell and U.S. Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.).

But before the moderates took to the podium, social conservatives had succeeded in passing a platform that vehemently opposes abortion, urges the return of school prayer to America’s classrooms, calls for legal measures to deny citizenship to children born in the United States to illegal immigrants and encourages religious institutions to administer government welfare programs.

“We will continue to work for the return of voluntary prayer to our schools,” the platform declares.

On the question of abortion, the platform reads: “The unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and we endorse legislation to make clear that the 14th Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.”

At the same time, the platform’s references to Israel and the Middle East were widely lauded.

The platform also denounced “all who practice or promote racism, anti-Semitism, ethnic prejudice and religious intolerance.”

But Jews here, concerned about the social issues in particular, were divided over the importance of the platform.

Some tried to downplay its significance, while others said it was exclusionary.

“We have a tough sell. The platform sends a message: We are not inclusive,” said Rosalie Zalis, a senior policy adviser to California Gov. Pete Wilson.

Wilson refused to speak at the convention after Republican officials banned him from discussing his pro-choice views.

Highlighting the concern about the platform’s tenor, Dole and many of his supporters began to distance the GOP from the party’s blueprint even before the convention began.

“I can’t think of one circumstance in which Bill Clinton would hold up the Democrats’ platform and campaign on it. Neither would Bob Dole,” said Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), a convention official. “This campaign will be won or lost on the economy, crime and character.”

Many Jewish delegates, who make up 3 percent of the nearly 2,000 participants, happily concurred with the message of the convention’s leaders.

“The platform does not mean that much,” said Nettie Becker, a delegate from California.

“It’s the candidates that matter. And Jack Kemp will take the message to the voters and Jews will support our ticket.”

“No platform ever represents completely the views of all constituents,” said Jack Stein, a delegate from New Jersey.

“The party allows everybody a voice, that’s the key to the appendix,” said Stein, referring to the compromise reached on abortion that allowed for a three-page appendix to the platform that includes the failed amendments of pro- choice forces.

“The Republican Party welcomes individuals on each side of the abortion issue, encourages their open discussion, solicits their active participation in the party and respects their positions and beliefs,” the platform says.

But social conservatives were quick to condemn any efforts by party leaders to distance themselves from the platform that they had worked so hard to obtain.

“This represents the Republican Party. We are the pro-life, pro-family party,” said Jeff Fisher, executive director of the Christian Coalition’s Texas chapter and a delegate to the convention.

But Becker, a pro-choice advocate, dismissed the Christian Coalition’s presence here.

“They controlled the platform process. But the majority of Republicans do not share their views,” she said

“Extremists flock to conventions. They do not represent me or the party.”

For his part, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) slammed the platform for some of its sections on issues that are opposed by many American Jews, regardless of party affiliation.

“The Republican Party is not making this irresponsible and mean-spirited amendment part of this campaign,” Specter, who is pro-choice, said of the abortion plank.

Specter also lambasted what he called the “despicable call to ban citizenship to those born in the United States” to illegal immigrants.

The same Jewish Republicans who are distancing themselves from the party’s platform on social issues are championing the blueprint’s strong pro-Israel message.

The platform calls for the implementation of legislation initiated by Dole when he was a senator that requires the United States to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

It also commits to joint U.S.-Israeli military projects now under way.

The platform is the GOP’s “best ever on Israel,” said an American Israel Public Affairs Committee official who worked with the drafting committee and asked not to be named.

For his part, vice presidential hopeful Kemp told a Jewish-sponsored reception here: “I am proud to run” with a “platform that recognizes the strong relationship, common values, common ideals” that the United States and Israel share.

But Republicans acknowledge that Israel alone will not sway the election for most American Jews.

“Dole-Kemp will win this election on the strength of the message of hope and opportunity,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition.

“We will reach the American voter from churches to synagogues to ghettos to barrios,” he said.

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