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BEHIND THE HEADLINES Jewish officials critical of Bush for urging Buchanan to stay in GOP

WASHINGTON, Sept. 28 (JTA) – With a maelstrom swirling around Pat Buchanan and the views he espouses on Hitler and World War II in his latest book, the last thing Texas Gov. George W. Bush wanted to do was become ensnared in the controversy. But in asking the Republican firebrand not to leave the GOP, Bush has drawn criticism from key Republican and conservative leaders, as well as Jewish leaders. It remains to be seen what, if any, impact Bush’s reaction to Buchanan will have on his campaign’s outreach efforts to Jewish voters. Bush, the Republican presidential front-runner, last week said he disagreed with the views expressed in Buchanan’s book, “A Republic, Not an Empire,” that Nazi Germany posed no threat to the United States after 1940 and that America might have been better off had it stayed out of the war. But he urged Buchanan to stay in the party, telling the Associated Press that it was “important” if he wins the nomination “to unite the Republican Party. I’m going to need every vote I can get among Republicans to win the election.” A Reform Party bid by Buchanan could siphon off at least 4 percentage points from Bush, according to most polls. Bush’s stance sharply contrasted with the stances taken by GOP rival Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other Republican critics of Buchanan who said he should be kicked out of the party because of his fringe views. McCain, echoing a sentiment expressed by some in the Jewish community, said Bush was putting politics ahead of principle. Several Jewish leaders said this week that they felt Bush should have spoken out more forcefully about Buchanan and made clear that his views have no place in the Republican “big tent.” But Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that while he was disappointed with Bush’s response, he was far more troubled by the attitude toward Buchanan in political circles and what he called a lack of recognition of the “nature and of the poison of this man.” “I am troubled that there is a man who is an anti-Semite, who is a Hitler apologist, a Nazi war criminal defender, an Israel-basher, a racist on so many levels, and good serious people are still trying to waltz around him gingerly,” Foxman said. If people were to recognize “who he is and what he is,” he added, “there would be no hesitancy to say that this man does not belong in the political mainstream of our country.” Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said he agreed that “both parties ought to be big tents, but there have to be places that you draw the line.” Saperstein said it was incumbent upon Bush, having made the argument that Buchanan should remain in the party, to clarify exactly where he disagrees with him, to be specific about which views expressed by Buchanan have no place in the party and to urge him to repudiate those views. Bush’s failure to do that is “distressing,” he said. Responding to the criticism, Mindy Tucker, a spokeswoman for the Bush campaign, said, “Gov. Bush is a leader who believes in uniting our party much like Ronald Reagan did, instead of driving wedges between people. The Republican Party is a contest, a contest of ideas, and Republican voters will have a chance to express their opinion on this issue in the primary.” She declined to elaborate on Bush’s political considerations, but said of Buchanan’s views: “Gov. Bush disagrees emphatically with the strange ideas expressed by Pat Buchanan about World War II. He believes that World War II was a great and noble cause.” Just days before publicly commenting on Buchanan, Bush had met with Jewish Republicans and the heads of several major Jewish organizations to discuss a range of Jewish concerns, including the Middle East peace process, church-state separation and gun violence. At the private meeting in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 22, Bush said he disagreed fundamentally with Buchanan’s views, according to officials who attended the meeting. But he indicated that he did not want to draw more attention to Buchanan by engaging him in a debate. Instead, Bush decided to appeal for party unity by urging Buchanan not to bolt the GOP at a time when Buchanan appears likely to seek the Reform Party nomination for the presidency. Several sources said the strategy was likely intended to avoid alienating conservative voters and risk turning Buchanan into a martyr who could claim he was forced out of the party. At least one Jewish organizational leader who attended the meeting with Bush said he understood the Bush camp’s decision. “I would like to see him reject Buchanan, and I reject Buchanan. But in the context of the meeting we had Wednesday, I understand the outreach he has expressed” toward Buchanan “at the present time,” said Richard Heideman, president of B’nai B’rith International. Jewish Democrats, meanwhile, were quick to pounce on the GOP front-runner. “Bush made a terrible choice,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “He made a political calculation, and he said it doesn’t matter what this guy stands for – if he’s obsessed with Jews, if he’s an anti-Semite, if he’s a xenophobe. What matters is what can save one extra vote for George Bush. And that’s terribly disappointing.” The Republican Jewish Coalition last week said Buchanan’s views were abhorrent and that he had no place in the Republican Party. But Matt Brooks, the group’s executive director, defended Bush’s stance, saying it made practical sense. “Buchanan is leaving the party regardless of what George W. Bush or anybody else has to say,” Brooks said. “What he’s done is to make sure Buchanan can’t leave the party and take Republican support with him, saying he was forced out of the party.” As for the impact the controversy could have on the Jewish electorate, most observers said it was far too early to tell. By most accounts, Bush – a pro-life governor who has said he wants church and state to “work together,” has endorsed displaying the Ten Commandments in schools and once said that only followers of Jesus can go to heaven – already has a difficult road ahead in courting Jews, who have historically backed Democratic candidates. At the same time, supporters of Bush emphasize that he is committed to building support in the Jewish community – as evidenced by the meeting he convened with Jewish leaders last week. Brooks pointed to the fact that Bush has surrounded himself with Jewish advisers who have strong records on issues of concern to the Jewish community, while showing a firm stance on issues like moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and supporting a strong U.S.-Israeli strategic relationship.