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Democratic Candidates Skip Fla., but Voters Still Paying Attention

For South Florida’s large, politically engaged Jewish community, this year’s primary season was going to make up for the 2000 presidential debacle, when voters in the Sunshine State felt disenfranchised by the specter of hanging chads and aborted recounts.

With both parties boasting a wide open field of candidates and no clear front-runner, Florida moved its primary up to Jan. 29, ahead of Super Tuesday, in the hopes of once again taking center stage in a national political drama.

Only one problem: Half the players aren’t showing up.

In retaliation for violating national party rules about scheduling, the Democratic National Committee is threatening not to seat Florida delegates to the party’s convention this summer in Denver. And Democratic presidential candidates have pledged not to campaign in the state.

“There’s a measure of frustration,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), an increasingly influential Jewish lawmaker and national co-chair of the Clinton campaign, describing the mood among state Democrats.

Like many other Florida Democrats, Wasserman Schultz is confident that the DNC will ultimately back down from its threat. And, she predicted, while the absence of the Democratic candidates will likely suppress voter turnout for the primaries, the national media will closely cover the results in Florida, the last state to vote before 24 primaries and caucuses on Super Tuesday.

“That will give the winner a significant amount of momentum going into the Feb. 5 primary,” she said.

Among the state’s Jewish voters — who like Jews around the country, vote overwhelmingly for Democratic presidential candidates — their party’s absence doesn’t seem to have dulled their enthusiasm for the race.

In interviews throughout the area last week, Florida Democrats appeared to favor Hillary Clinton, with scattered support for Barack Obama and John Edwards.

“I feel like she’s the Democrats’ best shot,” said Elaine Cohn, who added that she believed a vote for Hillary gets her a “two-for-one with Bill.”

“I think he would be a tremendous asset,” Cohn said.

Brian Daniels, a registered Democrat, is also voting for Clinton in the primary. But if the general election were held tomorrow, he said he would support Republican John McCain over Clinton.

“Right now I think that the most important issues to me relate to the war on terrorism and I believe that McCain and Giuliani have a much better proven track record,” Daniels said, referring also to Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor.

“I also believe that the world is a chaotic place right now and whoever gets elected president has to move right in and taken on responsibility without making mistakes, without the learning curve that’s necessary.”

The notion of concern over terrorism leading Democrats to vote Republican in a general election is music to GOP ears. In their appeals to Jewish voters, Republican candidates have stressed their strength on national security and support for Israel in an attempt to move Jewish Democrats across the party divide.

But party loyalties die hard in Florida. In 2004, the Bush campaign pursued a similar line in its effort to win over Jewish voters. They recruited former New York Mayor Ed Koch to vouch that Bush was such a good friend of Israel that Jewish voters ought to overlook their differences on domestic policy.

The pitch, according to exit polling, resulted in a shift of just 4 percent of Florida Jews to the Republican column — not a huge shift, but not insignificant either if the race is close. Bush won 18 percent of the Florida Jews in 2000, and 22 percent in 2004, according to those polls.

Jaqueline Lankry, a Moroccan-born kosher caterer in Hollywood, says Israel is “the No. 1 thing” on her mind as she evaluates presidential candidates. But Lankry is supporting Hillary Clinton over Giuliani partly because of nostalgia for the Clinton years and partly because of Giuliani’s troubled personal life.

The former New York City mayor is thrice married and famously informed his second wife, Donna Hanover, of his intention to seek a separation at a news conference.

“The first thing is the family,” Lankry said from behind the counter of Lankry’s Gourmet Catering and Bakery last week. “If he’s not good for the family, he’s not good for us.”

Democrat Larry Smith, a former Jewish congressman from Florida’s 16th District, told JTA that Republican appeals to Jews on national security alone will never sway most Jews.

Smith’s comments came after he finished listening to remarks by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) at a Chabad function in Fort Lauderdale in which he touted, as he did at a number of Jewish events in Florida last week, McCain’s national security credentials.

“Social and economic issues are the single most driving force for Jews,” said Smith, who represented a traditionally Republican-leaning area that includes some Jewish pockets in Palm Beach County.

“As long as there is, in my estimation, a coequal commitment by the candidates on both sides to Israel, I don’t believe that the issue relating to terrorism can be made into such a large issue where you can separate John McCain as the incredible leader of the pack and everybody else as being soft on terrorism,” Smith said. “It doesn’t work.”

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