TAMARAC, Fla. (Oct. 5)
A cold fear is blowing through south Florida’s strip malls, wilted palms and retirement homes, fear of another agonizingly close election fraught with charges and countercharges of vote theft. And standing at the nexus of this storm, for reasons having as much to do with geography as with politics, is the region’s Jewish community. Florida’s Jewish vote is emerging as crucial to the 2004 presidential contest, and both campaigns are bringing out their top guns to sway the region’s 700,000 Jews, some 4 percent of the state’s total population.
"The difference between John Kerry winning by four points or two points or even closer is the turnout here in Broward and Palm Beach counties," Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) told a packed hall in a retirement community here over the weekend.
Waving his arm at an alignment of the party’s Jewish superstars on the stage behind him, Wexler told his constituents: "It shows how much they care about the Jewish community here in south Florida."
Republicans agree: The stakes are high in Florida, and the Jewish vote could be key.
"The percentage of Jewish voters is growing, and they vote more often," said Sid Dinerstein, the chairman of the Republican Party in Palm Beach county, one of three Jewish-intensive counties targeted by the Democratic blitz this weekend.
Democrats brought in best-selling writer and law professor Alan Dershowitz, erstwhile presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and a raft of other Jewish leading lights this weekend.
After the event at the Kings Point retirement campus in Tamarac, the group split up and attended events at synagogues and Jewish community centers throughout the state.
The Republicans haven’t been slacking: former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani spoke at a Boca Raton synagogue recently, and his predecessor, Ed Koch, was slated to appear this week at events in Boca Raton and Miami, surrounded by Republican Jewish legislators and mayors.
A key to the Republicans’ aggressive strategy with Jews in the state is to bring in figures like Giuliani and Koch who don’t share much in common with Bush on domestic issues, but who say he is the only candidate capable of defending Israel and handling the threat of terrorism.
Locally, one Republican trophy has been Miami Beach Mayor Ron Dermer, a Democrat who has endorsed Bush because of his Israel policies.
There are two reasons for the focus on the Jewish community:
First, the Jewish population is over a thousand times the 537 votes that handed Florida and the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000.
In that election, less than 20 percent of Jewish voters nationwide opted for Bush; Republicans are believed to have made inroads since then because of Bush’s unprecedented closeness to Israel’s Sharon government.
Second, out of 67 Florida counties, 15 are planning to use touch-screen voting machines for the first time in a presidential election.
Democrats, who traditionally fare better in recounts than Republicans, oppose the touch-screens because the lack of a paper trail could stymie any recount.
The party is blitzing the 15 counties with appeals to take advantage of Florida’s early voting law, which allows voting beginning Oct. 18 at stations that use the old paper ballot machines.
In hopes of ensuring recounts in those counties, Democrats are aiming to persuade 25 percent of voters in those counties to vote early.
Notably, the three largest counties by far of the 15 — Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Broward — are areas with substantial Jewish communities.
And Jews, campaign officials suggest, are prime targets for the early-voting campaign because they are practiced enough voters to absorb the complex reasons for voting before Nov. 2.
Leading the early-voting drive for the Democrats is Ron Klein, the Jewish minority leader in the state senate.
"It’s a huge component to the campaign," said Lale Mameaux, Wexler’s press secretary, who has taken time off to help with the presidential campaign in Florida.
The appeal is resonating with many Jewish retirees who have bitter memories of 2000, when confusing ballots led some Jewish voters to cast a vote for Pat Buchanan, the Holocaust-diminishing Reform candidate, instead of Al Gore.
"I’m concerned there could be finagling," said Ruth Kaplan Weiser, after hearing Klein speak at Temple Emeth in Delray Beach.
Other Jews indicated they would vote early for practical reasons.
"My husband could get sick and not vote," said Sima Rosenzweig, who also attended the Temple Emeth event. "If he voted early he could be assured of his vote."
Further north, in the Century Village retirement village in West Palm Beach, a hurricane recently destroyed the club house where Nov. 2 voting is to take place, a factor that George Loewenstein cited when he said he would encourage his fellow retirees to vote early.
"My feeling is that you’re dealing with a lot of elderly people, changing polling places could be confusing," he said as he left a Democratic event.
Voting early would alleviate the chaos likely to occur on Election Day, he said.
Beyond such practical considerations, Democrats are concerned that Republicans have succeeded in making inroads in the staunchly Democratic community by highlighting Bush’s pro-Israel record.
"There’s a fear factor," state Sen. Skip Campbell told the Jewish audience in Tamarac.
"They’re coming here saying, ‘We love Israel and John Kerry doesn’t love Israel.’ " He noted Kerry’s 100 percent voting record in the Senate.
Early on, the Kerry campaign had calculated that Kerry would only have to prove traditional pro-Israel bona fides — a strong congressional voting record, tales of his many visits to the country — and avoid a one-upmanship battle on who was better for Israel.
Instead, the hope was that Jews would be more focused on domestic issues such as the economy and the make-up of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Polling suggests that such a strategy was not off the mark — Bush has gained only a few points in recent national Jewish polls — but in a close election, even a handful of votes could make the difference.
So the Kerry campaign is now hammering home Kerry’s Israel record.
A full-page ad handed out as a flyer and appearing in Florida Jewish papers excerpted quotes from Kerry praising Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and supporting the West Bank security barrier.
Kerry supporters attending the events said it was just in time.
Gloria Green came to the event in Delray Beach, which featured Dershowitz, to get talking points to defend Kerry’s Israel record.
"I have a friend who is voting for Bush because he thinks Bush is so good for Israel," she said.
Like many others, she did not know that Kerry had scored a perfect pro-Israel record in his congressional votes.
Others repeated concerns about friends who said they would vote Republican for the first time.
Adele Chandler said she needed more information from the Kerry campaign to confront such arguments. "I can’t argue point for point," she said.
Even Lieberman said such a thrust was overdue.
"People want John to speak up more" on Israel, the Connecticut senator told a conference call of Jewish house parties on Sunday night.
He said Sunday’s get-out-the-vote effort heartened him.
"This day could be the largest mobilization of Jewish people since the Six-Day War, and I’m hoping to see a similar result," he said. "It’s an opportunity to get right what didn’t turn out right in 2000."
A measure of the Democratic concern was reflected in a new willingness to attack Bush on his Israel record, a tactic Democrats had previously abjured as unrealistic given Bush’s record.
Deshowitz said Bush had emphasized Iraq to the detriment of Iran, allowing a potential nuclear threat to Israel to fester.
U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) told voters that the Bush administration had stymied his efforts to set up an anti-Semitism monitor at the State Department, and to link aid to Lebanon and Egypt to their performance on relations to Israel.
"Don’t believe the myth that this administration is so good on issues related to Israel and on issues related to anti-Semitism," said Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor elected to Congress.
The fears of Republican inroads into the Jewish community that drive such rhetoric are justified, said Dinerstein, the Palm Beach Republican Party chairman.
He listed a litany of local Jewish Republican politicians and said low Jewish support for Bush in 2000 was an anomaly, that Jews couldn’t resist voting for a ticket with Lieberman’s name.
He predicted that as many as 40 percent of Jewish voters in Florida would go to Bush this election.
"It’s been building for a generation and we’re ready to spring it on them," he said.
Interviews with voters suggested that support for Bush and Kerry among Florida’s Jews divided between those who said Israel was their priority and those who said domestic issues mattered more.
Bush supporters placed Israel higher; those who said the economy worried them were likelier to vote for Kerry.
In retirement communities, that came down to practical considerations.
"I get my prescriptions through the Veterans Administration," sad Sid Rosenzweig of Delray Beach.
"Four years ago, I was paying two dollars, now it’s seven dollars, and soon it’s going to be 15 dollars."
Rita Carness and two buddies found a spot on a stair in the crowded center in Tamarac to listen and to cheer on the pro-Kerry speakers.
"He has a better understanding of the average person and the middle class," she said.
Moss Ellenvogen, dining on shwarma in a sukkah in a strip mall in the town Sunrise, said the burgeoning deficit worried him, but he would vote for the president on Nov. 2.
"We’re going to pay for these tax cuts in 5 to 10 years," said Ellenvogen, an accountant, but Bush’s friendliness to Israel counted more.
The domestic/Israel divide helped break up a meeting of the Yiddish club at the Jewish Community Center in Sunrise.
"I think Bush is a better friend to Israel than Kerry," said Diane Roseff.
Frieda Raucher said she was paying "through the nose" for her medications.
She suggested that voters had to think first as Americans, then as Jews.
"Our kids are getting killed in Iraq," she said. "It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my son,’ God forbid."
Raucher’s husband, Nathan, was torn. "Bush is closer to Israel than Kerry. Closer to home, the situation with medication for senior citizens is a hot potato."
Ultimately, the Democrats might count on an element that runs deeper than the headlines of the day: the traditional bond between Jews and Democrats.
At one of the weekend events, when the speaker who introduced Cameron Kerry, the candidate’s younger brother, noted the younger Kerry’s conversion to Judaism 20 years ago, the audience oohed and ahhed.
"Mazel tov!" one man yelled.
"We have to hold on to our tradition, we started out with Roosevelt in 1932," Tamarac Mayor Joe Schreiber urged his constituents. "We got to do whatever we can to get rid of this Bush guy."
Then it was time for the superstars Lieberman, Dershowitz, et al to make their appearance.
The Kerry campaign theme song, Bruce Springsteen’s "No surrender," blasted through the speakers, and the crowd of retirees rocked and cheered.