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11th-hour outreach to Jewish voters

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WASHINGTON, Oct. 31 (JTA) – In an all-out effort to court Jewish voters in the remaining days of the presidential campaign, Jerusalem has become the latest battleground.

Both Democrats and Republicans are accusing the opposing candidate of changing his position on where the U.S. Embassy in Israel should sit.

Both Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush have said they favor moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and that their positions have not changed.

A law mandating such a move was enacted by Congress in 1995, but never implemented because of the Clinton administration’s concern that it would jeopardize the peace process.

Now with Israel and the Palestinians steeped in a violent conflict that sees no end in sight, the chances that either a Gore or Bush administration would immediately move the embassy seems unlikely.

Still, the degree to which the flap over the issue has sparked partisan faxes, emails and discussion illustrates the determination with which the campaigns – and their Jewish supporters – are working to convince Jewish voters to choose their man.

“The Jewish vote in certain states can make or break this presidential election,” said David Harris, deputy executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

“In a tight race, everything counts,” agreed Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

It might be the only thing Jewish Democrats and Republicans agree on these days.

The outreach to Jewish voters includes the positive about their guy – from Jewish newspaper ads and op- eds to campaign events geared to Jewish constituencies.

The Gore campaign, for instance, enlisted political humorist Al Franken and Joseph Lieberman’s stepson, Ethan Tucker, to conduct a conference call Monday night to rally Jewish student leaders on college campuses across the country.

The Gore campaign also recently established Jewish leadership councils in 12 key states. The councils are writing letters to the editor, working with leaders in the neighborhoods and mobilizing supporters.

For its part, the NJDC has mailed approximately 250,000 voter guides to Jewish households in key states, such as Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio and New York. The guides, covering House, Senate and the presidential races, detail candidates’ positions on issues of importance to the Jewish community, such as separation of church and state, reproductive freedom and support for Israel.

While the Gore campaign appears to be actively working for Jewish votes, the Bush campaign says it will not focus on any particular ethnic or interest group in the final days of the race.

Bush spokesman Ray Sullivan said he thinks the Jewish vote is important, but his candidate’s message is now aimed at all voters.

“We are focused on the widest possible audience in key states,” Sullivan said.

But Brooks of the RJC said that state Republican parties are doing special outreach to Jewish communities, including direct mail and targeted phone calling aimed at ensuring that Jewish Republicans come out to vote.

Brooks also said that his group sent out op-ed pieces to Jewish newspapers this week highlighting the candidates’ differing positions on various issues. And he hopes to get Bush foreign policy advisor George Shultz to speak at an event in Florida.

Along with the positive efforts to bolster each candidate comes the negative efforts to tear the other guy down.

In addition to targeting Bush, the Gore campaign is contending with the possibility that liberal Jewish voters will support Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.

Pursuing the message they are sending to many constituencies that a Nader vote could inadvertently become a vote for Bush, Gore supporters are pointing out to Jewish groups Nader’s recent comments that Israel should be held responsible for the recent violence in the Middle East.

The flap over Jerusalem and the U.S. Embassy began last week.

Rumors that Bush had changed his position emanated from a former Republican lawmaker who was using the issue to encourage Arab Americans to support Bush.

Former U.S. Rep. Paul Findley (R-Ill.), viewed by many as one of the most anti-Israel congressmen, suggested in his message on the Web site of the American Muslim Alliance that if Bush changed his view on the embassy, as president he could change his view on other issues, unlike Gore who “is absolutely in Israel’s pocket.”

Both Bush and Gore have been jockeying for the Arab American vote in a way never seen in U.S. presidential politics – particularly in the swing state of Michigan, which has a large Arab American population.

In a letter to Bush following that posting, a group of U.S. lawmakers in the House asked the GOP candidate to clarify his position. The Bush campaign denies any change in the governor’s views and reiterated that he would move the embassy if elected president.

At the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference last spring, Bush received a standing ovation when he promised conference participants that he would move the U.S. ambassador in Israel to Jerusalem. The Bush campaign reportedly said the governor meant to say the embassy as well.

But Jewish Democrats seized on the issue to suggest that Bush would not support Jewish interests and accused Bush of playing politics with the issue.

Republicans struck back this week, seizing on news reports that Gore, in a speech to Arab Americans in Michigan, had said he supported keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv.

The Wall Street Journal and the Detroit Free Press reported that Gore had told a group of Arab American leaders on Sunday that he had opposed moving the embassy.

The Gore campaign maintains the charge is “100 percent wrong,” and that Gore continues to believe that the embassy should be moved in the future, but that the move can only take place in the context of the peace process.

The Gore campaign also quoted James Zogby, an advisor to the Gore campaign and a participant at the meeting, confirming that Gore said Sunday he believes any decision on the U.S. Embassy must be resolved in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

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