America Decides 2004 Graham’s Exit Leaves Florida Jews Searching for a Candidate to Support

The names have been in the news for months, but Florida voters are just beginning to pay attention.

When talk turns to the 2004 race for the White House, many Jewish Floridians acknowledge that they haven’t been watching the field of Democratic candidates as closely as in years past.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Bob Josefsberg, a trial attorney in Miami, said at an American Jewish Committee dinner Oct. 15. He said Graham’s departure left him “shell-shocked and gun-shy.”

Josefsberg had given $2,000 — the maximum allowed under federal law — to Graham’s presidential bid. Since the senator’s exit, Josefsberg has received calls from four different campaigns seeking support.

“It’s like your wife dies, and people are trying to fix you up the next week,” he said.

Graham’s withdrawal has brought several Democratic presidential hopefuls to Florida, with more planning trips in coming weeks and month.

They aren’t necessarily here to win votes: By the time of Florida’s March 9 primary, nearly 30 other states will have gone to the polls and one candidate may already have the nomination all but sewn up. That’s why some of the Democratic candidates virtually have ignored Florida.

But others are making frequent trips seeking campaign contributions from affluent Floridians, many of them Jews.

Candidates need to raise about $3 million each quarter to be in the upper half of Democratic hopefuls. Dean received $14 million in the quarter ending Sept. 30, the most of any candidate.

Graham, who spent eight years as governor before becoming a senator in 1987, is a beloved figure in this state and enjoys tremendous support in the Jewish community. That support brought a lot of money and, presumably, votes to Graham — support that is now up for grabs.

“It now makes available some political donors,” said Mitch Ceasar, chairman of the Broward County Democratic Party. “There are people available now who were either with Graham or were sitting on the fence in deference to Graham.”

While many Florida Jews liked Graham and supported him, they’re looking for something different from the next candidate.

“I was definitely for Graham, but I really thought it would be a wasted vote,” said Trudy Schurowitz of Pembroke Pines, who was waiting to hear Lieberman speak at a senior citizens’ forum Oct. 16. “I didn’t see the strengths in his approach that we must have.”

Schurowitz’s outlook is echoed by other Jewish voters, who say they were unsure of Graham’s ability to lead the country and are looking for a candidate with strong leadership skills.

Leadership is a reoccurring theme. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 have made it even more urgent to have a strong leader in the White House, say Florida voters, many of whom express concerns about the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war.

That has led some voters into the arms of Clark, whose entry into the campaign last month was welcomed in Florida. He is a known entity in some Jewish communities here, having spoken to the Broward County Jewish Federation in 2001, and his military record appeals to some voters.

“I feel confident that he has knowledge of security issues,” said Hillary Waksman, a dental hygienist, on her way home after exercising at the Broward County Jewish Community Center. “I found him to be very articulate and confident in what he was saying.”

Ceasar said Clark’s support mirrors the interest Dean received when he first came to national media attention earlier this year, but he suggested that it may fade as the campaign continues.

Another presence in the race isn’t even on the Democratic slate: President Bush.

Bashing administration policy in the Middle East and at home has become a competitive sport among the Democratic candidates, and it has seemed to rub off on the Democratic constituency of South Florida.

“I think he’s a moron,” Pembroke Pines resident Joan Kassel said of Bush. “I think that man is dangerous, and I don’t like the Iraq situation.”

But Bush still has support in South Florida.

Ned Siegel, a Bush fund-raiser in the region, said the president’s message on the Middle East has intrigued Florida Jews. He notes that many rabbis in Florida read Bush’s Rosh Hashanah message to their congregants at services.

“Fund raising in the South Florida Jewish community has changed,” Siegel said. “We are not only increasing fund raising from people who had given before, but independents and even some Democrats are participating in his re-election.”

For Lieberman, his pitch in Florida is half about the past and half about the future. He reminds Florida voters almost continuously about the Florida voting scandal of 2000, when he was presidential candidate Al Gore’s running mate and suffered through more than a month of recounts and court fights before President Bush was certified as the victor.

“What a shame 2000 was,” Lieberman said at the forum at the Century Village retirement community. “We had the votes, but not the five votes on the Supreme Court.”

He also speaks of issues that are especially relevant to many Florida voters, including programs like Social Security and Medicare.

After Lieberman’s speech, the seniors peppered him with questions on health insurance and the economy, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the fate of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard.

Lieberman has some support in this community, but Jewish backers say it’s not because of shared religion.

“It means nothing to me, because I don’t vote by religion or race,” Kassel said. “But there are a lot of older Jews and I think they would vote for a Jew just because he’s Jewish.”

Abraham Spieler of Hollywood saw both Clark and Lieberman speak in Florida, and he said he’s leaning toward Clark.

“I think Clark has a tremendous record,” Spieler said. “I just know that this time we need a leader.”

He referred to Lieberman as “the hawk,” criticizing his support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq last spring.

“I’m here because I still have a little Jewish pride in me, and I want to hear what he has to say, besides about his mother,” Spieler said before Lieberman’s event.

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