With Tight Race Expected in Florida, Gop Campaigns for Jewish Support

President Bush’s first salvos against presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry include shots carefully aimed at Jewish voters — a sign of the community’s importance in key states, especially Florida.

The race in Florida looks so close — the latest polls show Kerry and Bush neck-and-neck — that Republicans are focusing on Jewish votes and financial support.

“If we can get a message of President Bush’s leadership to the Jewish community clearly conveyed, we can make a significant difference,” said Adam Hasner, a Florida state representative who is chairing Bush’s Jewish outreach effort in the state.

Bush surrogates have emphasized what they say are inconsistencies in Kerry’s support for Israel, especially regarding Israel’s West Bank security barrier.

In a conference call with reporters Monday, Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) cited a speech Kerry gave in October to the Arab American Institute, where he called the fence a “barrier to peace.” He contrasted that with recent comments Kerry has made to Jewish audiences praising the fence.

“Americans really want strong leadership,” said Coleman, who is Jewish. “They don’t want leadership that goes and back and forth based on the group he’s speaking in front of.”

Democrats have said Bush is just as vulnerable in this area, pressing Israel hard on the fence in 2003 but backing away in 2004, once the election campaign got under way.

“John Kerry has been clear and consistent: He supports Israel’s right to defend itself and views the fence as a legitimate security interest,” said Mark Kornblau, a Kerry spokesman. “The Bush administration and John Kerry have both questioned the path of the fence, but never Israel’s right to construct the fence or to defend itself.”

Coleman acknowledged Bush administration concerns about the fence, but suggested that Kerry’s contrasting comments to Arab and Jewish audiences was a case of pandering.

The Bush-Cheney campaign also is highlighting Kerry’s 1997 book, “The New War,” in which he referred to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat as a “statesman.”

While acknowledging that times were different then — in 1997, Arafat was involved in a peace process with Israel and was welcome at the Clinton White House — Coleman suggested that pro-Israel voters could take heart in Bush’s isolation of Arafat. He called Kerry’s characterization of Arafat an error in judgment.

“Arafat has been a terrorist from the beginning to the middle to the end,” Coleman said. “It was a grave mistake then to call him a statesman.”

In the book, Kerry calls Arafat’s “transformation from outlaw to statesman” the exception, rather than the rule, in the terrorist trajectory. A number of Republican leaders at the time also met with and praised Arafat.

Bush campaign officials believe that hitting Kerry on security issues will sit well with a Jewish community they believe is inclined to support Bush for his pro-Israel sentiments and is skeptical of Democrats’ positions on the Middle East.

But Kornblau said it wouldn’t work.

“This is an effort by the Bush administration and Republicans to distort John Kerry’s record, and they’re not going to be successful,” he said. “He has been a friend of Israel for close to 20 years in the U.S. Senate, and he will be a staunch friend of Israel as president.”

Kornblau was accompanying Kerry on the hustings in Florida, where the Massachusetts senator was ostensibly campaigning for this week’s primary in the state, but looking ahead to November voting.

Few have forgotten the pivotal role Florida and its Jewish community – - particularly in Palm Beach County — played in the election debacle of 2000. Shoring up the state is seen as a key to winning the White House.

Kerry said he was setting up a legal team to review every contested vote this November, a reminder of the bitterly contested 2000 Florida vote count. Many Democrats, including many Jews, believe the Republicans stole the 2000 election.

The potentially pivotal Jewish role in Florida is not lost on the Republican campaign.

Republican activists say their emphasis in courting the Jewish community has changed. Instead of focusing on raising money in the community while leaving most of the votes to the Democrats, Republican Jewish leaders now believe Bush’s Middle East policies could win Jewish votes.

Coleman’s conference call was the third Bush campaign media call in nine days to discuss the fence issue. Marc Racicot, chairman of the Bush/Cheney campaign, talked to Jewish journalists after meeting with Republican Jews in Florida Feb. 29, and two Florida GOP lawmakers — Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mark Foley – - spoke out on Kerry’s Middle East record March 3.

Racicot said he believes Bush can get 30 percent to 35 percent of the American Jewish vote in 2004, compared to the 22 percent he won in 2000.

The Florida contest is seen as so close that a chance to pick up any Jewish support is considered crucial.

“We understand they have been inclined to support Democrats, but we feel the president’s policies and his values in regards to the Middle East lead to the possibility to be much more successful in the Jewish community — not just in Florida, but around the country,” Racicot said.

When asked whether he saw Kerry as weak on Israel, Racicot tried to paint the Democratic candidate as lacking leadership on foreign policy issues.

“He hasn’t been strong on the defense functions of this country,” Racicot said. “He certainly has not addressed the issues with the bright-line devotion and clarity that the president has.”

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