WASHINGTON, March 13 (JTA) — The day before Super Tuesday, Vice President Al Gore was in New York and Texas Gov. George W. Bush was in California, but both were out looking for the Jewish vote.
Now that each has all but sewn up his party’s nomination, will the presidential candidates continue to seek Jewish support? Or were the visits to Jewish institutions merely attempts to lock up last-minute votes in states with large Jewish populations?
Jewish voters make up only a tiny percent of the American electorate, but have in the past been seen as providing a swing vote in certain key states that affected the outcome of the general presidential election.
Further, despite the numbers, Jews have traditionally played a disproportionate role in American politics since they are politically and financially active.
Both campaigns say they will place a high priority on reaching out to Jews.
In fund raising, as in vote gathering, the campaigns follow two paths in their appeals to the Jewish community — Bush has to demonstrate his worthiness and Gore has to maintain his.
The Gore campaign says the vice president’s meeting last week with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was nothing out of the ordinary and Gore will continue his long-standing commitment to the Jewish community.
“The vice president’s entire career has been marked by dialogue with the Jewish community,” says Peter Ragone, a Gore spokesman.
Gore doesn’t need to change his strategy to secure Jewish support for the general election in November, agrees Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who says that Gore’s record on Israel and domestic policies jibe with those of most Jewish voters.
In both 1992 and 1996, the Clinton-Gore team won about 80 percent of the Jewish vote.
Bush, on the other hand, faces a more uphill battle for Jewish support.
Jewish Republicans number an estimated 15 percent of the overall Jewish electorate, and many Republican candidates have trouble attracting Jewish supporters, who are traditionally liberal or moderate on social issues.
But the number of Jews who vote Republican can fluctuate a good deal depending on the candidate. Republicans received the highest percentage of Jewish votes in 1956, when 40 percent voted for Dwight Eisenhower; in 1980, Ronald Reagan won 39 percent.
Bush’s speech at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles last week may have been a signal to the Jewish community that he is reaching out.
“It was a first and important step,” says Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker. “It sets the tone for the rest of the campaign.”
Bush has been stressing the themes of religious tolerance and unity lately, and may use this issue to attract more Jewish support.
Despite his lack of experience in foreign policy, Bush has tried to put forth some strong positions on issues relating to Israel. He has sought to portray as too aggressive — and a problem for Israel — the current administration’s desire to conclude an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, despite the Israeli government’s general support of the Clinton-Gore approach.
Bush has also said that if elected, he would immediately begin work on moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
But appealing to Jewish hawks and attacking Gore could be a tricky road for Bush, considering the small number of hawkish voters in the Jewish community and Gore’s strong pro-Israel record.
Even drawing attention to his positions on Israel may be counterproductive, say some analysts, given his father’s decreasing support among Jewish voters.
In 1988, the candidate’s father, former President Bush, won more than 30 percent of the Jewish vote, but he only received 12 percent in his 1992 re-election bid. The decrease was seen in part as Jewish Republican disapproval over the Bush administration’s policies toward Israel.
Some Republicans fear the legacy of the older Bush will follow the younger. But others believe the Texas governor also has positions on domestic issues — such as education, taxes and the military — that will appeal to Jewish voters.
“We are optimistic we can make significant inroads,” says Matthew Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “Gov. Bush has a positive message of inclusion.”
Bush can reach out to a traditionally non-Republican constituency, Brooks says, and he will continue to aggressively court Jewish voters.
“He will not write off the Jewish vote,” Brooks adds.
For their part, Democrats believe it is Gore who sits squarely in line with the Jewish community when it comes to policy — particularly health care, education, gun control and abortion rights.
“This campaign can be fought and won in the Jewish community purely on the issues,” says David Harris, deputy executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Nevertheless, Gore will actively pursue Jewish support and try to energize Jewish voters, according to Jewish Democrats.
“He won’t take anything for granted,” Harris says.
Bush, it seems, cannot even take the support of registered Jewish Republicans for granted, given that he was not the clear choice in some of the primaries while Sen. John McCain of Arizona (R-Ariz.) was still in the race.
Jewish Republicans in New York, according to Voter News Service exit polls, overwhelmingly chose McCain over Bush, 58 percent to 28 percent, and in California, exit polls showed McCain with 21 percent and Bush with 4 percent of the Jewish vote.
As Bush embarks on the long stretch to November, one way he can reach out even more to the Jewish community is to give a major speech to a prominent Jewish group, suggests Joseph Gildenhorn, the finance chairman for the Bush campaign in the Washington area.
“As Jews realize he is a centrist and he is inclusive, Jews will be attracted to him,” Gildenhorn predicts.
In both campaigns, fund raising — even as campaign finance reform is shaping up to be a contentious election issue — will be a key objective in the weeks and months ahead.
Gildenhorn says that to raise more funds, the Bush campaign has to seek out new supporters and win over former McCain backers. Gildenhorn says he hopes to do that in the Jewish and non-Jewish world.
Raising funds for Gore in the Jewish community has never been a problem, says David Steiner, a past president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and a fund-raiser for the Gore campaign in New Jersey.
The fund raising for Gore as well as for the Democratic Party has been “overwhelmingly Jewish,” according to Morris Amitay, a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, who currently runs Washington PAC, pro-Israel political action committee.
Campaign contributions translate into access, Amitay says, and for Jews that means they can bring their domestic agenda and issues concerning Israel right to the candidate.
When it comes to seeking Jewish financial support, Steiner says, Gore will just “keep doing what he’s doing.”