America Decides 2004 Jewish Democrats Challenge Republican Counterparts to Debates

A political debate with an all-Jewish cast may be coming soon to a city near you. The National Jewish Democratic Council has challenged Republicans to a series of debates across the country on Jewish issues, and has enlisted 20 Jewish members of Congress to represent the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

The NJDC is also asking Jewish federations and community relations councils in battleground states to sponsor the forums.

The NJDC addressed its offer to the Bush-Cheney campaign, and has yet to get a formal response — but Republican Jews said they welcomed the challenge and were in any case planning to send surrogates across the country for debates.

Jews in both political parties say the fight for American Jewish votes has never been fiercer, especially in several states — Florida and Ohio — that are seen as too close to call and also have large Jewish populations.

Both ! sides believe debates on the issues tailored to the Jewish electorate will help them win votes in November.

NJDC officials and other leading Jewish Democrats have participated in forums with Republican Jewish Coalition leaders before, but this year they want to formalize the program.

“The Jewish community deserves a full examination of the Kerry record and the Bush record on all the issues,” said Ira Forman, NJDC’s executive director.

Bring it on, said the Republican Jewish Coalition.

“When folks see the candidates on the issues side-by-side, I think it only helps reinforce support for the president,” said Matt Brooks, the RJC’s executive director.

The NJDC proposes two-on-two debates, with a congressional representatives joining a NJDC official to represent the Democrats, taking on a Republican Jewish elected official and professional.

To that end, NJDC has brought 20 sitting lawmakers into the mix, all of them ready to tout Kerry.

The li! st includes Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.Y.) and several well-known memb ers of the House of Representatives, such as Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.).

“We’re going to get some serious people out there,” Forman said.

The invitation formally went to the Bush/Cheney campaign Monday.

Republican Jews are already busy touting the Bush administration’s Middle East policy in an effort to garner more Jewish voters.

They have relied heavily on the few Jewish Republicans in Congress, including Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer has spoken to the Jewish community for Bush as well, and Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle expressed an interest in serving as a surrogate for the Bush campaign last month.

In trying to woo the Jewish vote, the Bush campaign focuses almost exclusively on Israel and Middle East policy. Republican Jews believe Bush’s support for Israel and his tough stance against Palestinian Authority ! President Yasser Arafat will be embraced by Jews and that in the post-Sept. 11 era Jews will be looking for a strong leader on foreign policy and terrorism.

The Democrats’ strategy touts Kerry’s record on a wide range of issues. They emphasize support for the Jewish state, but also underscore traditional Jewish support for the party on domestic issues. Additionally, they believe many Jewish voters are frustrated with the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

President Bush received 19 percent of the Jewish vote in 2000. His father received 35 percent of the vote in 1988 and Ronald Reagan garnered 39 percent in 1980.

Jewish community leaders said they are always happy to hear both sides of the issues.

“We are certainly encouraging as much discussion as possible, within the legal guidelines, in communities before the election,” said Reva Price, Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which represents Jewish community relations councils.

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