America Decides 2004 for Floridians, Last-ditch Efforts to Persuade Friends and Family

Lenny Chesal, on line to attend a rally with Sen. John Kerry, is asking for help. “I need to convince my brother to vote for Kerry,” Chesal, 47, an Internet salesman from Deerfield Beach, Fla., says Sunday as he comes to one of two Jewish-Americans for Kerry-Edwards tables along the snaking line toward the security checkpoint at Florida Atlantic University.

Mikey, a volunteer from Los Angeles, gets right to work.

“Here’s what you’ve got to do,” he says, offering Chesal some campaign literature and suggesting different approaches to starting a conversation with his brother about the Democratic presidential ticket, some he says he used on his own brother.

“Tell him, ‘You know how much I support Israel, and would I vote for someone who isn’t pro-Israel?’ ” suggests Mikey, who does not give his last name.

“I finally convinced my father,” says Chesal, a stocky guy with a Florida Gators hat strewn with Kerry-Edwards buttons. “I want to be able to have talking points.”

With just days to go until Election Day — and with some polls already open in the Sunshine State — the last-ditch efforts are well under way.

Surrogates and volunteers are heavily courting Jewish voters, making the case for each candidate on Israel, canvassing neighborhoods, knocking on doors and making phone calls.

With the state so close, every vote — and every Jewish vote — counts.

But as the clock runs against them, both sides are leaning on committed supporters to engage their friends and neighbors. The personal appeal is seen as the most efficient and effective way to win over those remaining undecided voters.

The focus for Democrats is assuring Jewish voters that Kerry, a Massachusetts senator, will be strong on Israel. For Republicans, the buzz word is conversion, trying to persuade traditionally Democratic voters to back Bush because of his support for the Jewish state.

At the Kerry rally, Chesal is wearing a sticker with Kerry-Edwards in Hebrew on his shirt, but at this rally, so is almost everyone else.

African-Americans wear stickers, as do Latino voters. One sticker is placed on a sign reading “Irish-Americans for Kerry.”

But no one is more decked out than Rhoda Stern-Moss, who is wearing a T-shirt with “Kerry for President” in Hebrew, adorned with numerous stickers and buttons saying Kerry is pro-Israel.

“We’ve been canvassing,” says Stern-Moss, 73, as she leaves the event with her husband. “We’ve been calling people and handing out literature.”

She says many Jewish voters are asking her, on the phone and in person, what Kerry will do for Israel, suggesting they have not heard enough from the candidate himself.

“Once they hear it from me, their first instinct is to say, ‘Why hasn’t he said all of this,’ ” she says. “They are hoping to hear it, they want to vote for Kerry.”

Seeing all of the Jewish signs in front of him, Kerry did speak about Israel at the rally on Sunday.

“I will make Israel safer than George W. Bush is because I will stand up to those countries that are still supporting Hamas and Hezbollah,” he said.

But two days later, those words haven’t won over the crowd in Aventura.

When former New York City Mayor Ed Koch asks the largely senior citizen audience, munching on kosher turkey wraps and pickles at the Aventura-Turnberry Jewish Center, whether they are voting for President Bush, almost all of the hands go up in the air.

Mark Marmer has already worked the crowd. The 35-year-old lawyer from Palm Beach Gardens is taking off every day he can until Election Day to talk to Jewish voters about the benefits of the Republican ticket.

He says he has run across many Jewish voters who back Bush’s Middle East policy, but feel as if their arms would fall off if they cast a vote for a Republican.

“There is a need to make people feel comfortable, but not on Israel,” Marmer said. “To a lot of people of this generation, I tell them the Democratic Party is not the Democratic Party it used to be. I tell them they are not going in there to vote for FDR.”

Younger Jews, Marmer adds, are more willing to embrace Republicans. And the goal is not to convince all Jews, just enough to help Bush win Florida.

“I don’t think it works for most people, but fortunately for us, I don’t need it to work 50 percent of the time,” he said.

Koch, brought in by the Republican Jewish Coalition, may have been the biggest draw for Jews in Florida this week — until former President Bill Clinton stepped up to a synagogue pulpit on Tuesday.

Clinton told the audience at Temple B’nai Torah in Boca Raton that Kerry has not made unrealistic promises to the voters, and he touted Kerry’s support for Israel.

“He walked in and the synagogue absolutely erupted,” said Jeremy Ring, 34, who runs a children’s charity in Boca Raton. “People absolutely hung on his every word.”

Most of the candidate and surrogate events only bring out voters already on the side of the party sponsoring the event.

But Michael Fragin, a volunteer Jewish outreach coordinator for the Republican Party of Florida, says energizing Jewish voters can make them more willing to reach out to their friends and neighbors.

“The best use of resources is peer to peer, Jew to Jew,” he says.

Fragin, the Jewish liaison for New York’s Republican Gov. George Pataki most of the year, has only been in South Florida for three weeks, but he works the room at the Aventura event like he has been in town his whole life.

He is armed with literature filled with photos of Bush with Israeli and American Jewish leaders, as well as bumper stickers that say “Bush Is Real,” a takeoff on the old “Israel Is Real” slogan.

And he laughs off one woman who asks him how he can support Bush, refers to the president with profanity and walks off.

The next several days will be busy ones for both teams.

The emphasis will not be on getting Jews to the polls so much; Jews often vote in large numbers and many feel this year’s election is one of the most important ever.

Instead, the last days of the race will be spent making sure all of those last doubts are out of the heads of voters that are leaning their way.

“I don’t want it to be said that we left any stone unturned,” Fragin says, echoing the sentiment of many rival Democrats. “We are trying to touch as many people as possible.”

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