BEACHWOOD, Ohio (JTA) – Joe Arnoff and Linda Myers, canvassing this predominantly Jewish suburb of Cleveland for Barack Obama, discussed little more than the weather when they bumped into Ruth and Harold Greenberg on leafy Wendover Street doing the same for John McCain.
“We’re getting a good workout,” walking the streets in chilly weather, Harold Greenberg said of both couples.
Arnoff said he thought Ohio would go for Obama, the Illinois senator and Democratic candidate, but barely. Harold Greenberg said it was too close to call.
After exchanging a hearty “Shanah Tovah,” the couples veered in opposite directions: Arnoff and Myers went west, the Greenbergs east.
If the exchange seems friendly enough for a swing state in the most bitter election in memory, it’s because most voters – at least the Jews of Ohio – have passed the argument stage and are decided.
“People have pretty much made up their minds,” Greenberg said.
Candidates’ names crop up in conversation at the local Jewish haunts – Corky and Lenny’s in Beachwood, Jack’s Deli in University Heights – but mostly as a matter of speculation.
"Will Sarah Palin cost him the election?” one man mused of McCain at Corky and Lenny’s after the Alaska governor and GOP vice-presidential pick appeared on a TV screen.
The key now, as in several key states, is getting out the vote, and neither side is leaving a stone unturned.
The Cleveland Jewish News has carried ads from both sides, and its letters page has been extended into a robust debate about the merits of each candidate: Obama’s inexperience and alleged ties to Israel’s critics vs. McCain’s warm embrace of conservative dogma.
The Republican Jewish Coalition bused in volunteers from Chicago to help local RJC activists distribute John McCain leaflets in neighborhoods, particularly the Orthodox enclave in Beachwood, a natural redoubt for the Arizona senator.
Earlier this month, after a Democratic Party activist reported that false rumors about Obama were gaining traction at a home for the elderly, Matt Ratner, the scion of a local building family and the chief Jewish liaison for the campaign, organized a young people’s blitz of the institution.
It was a kind of a "mini-schlep" before Florida had its "Great Schlep," in which grandchildren visited Florida to convince their elderly kin to back Obama. The Ohio participants say their effort seemed to have worked.
Pro-McCain groups twice have brought in national Jewish standard-bearers for McCain, including talkback radio stars Dennis Prager and Michael Medved, for events aimed mostly at the converted.
Each side claims the extra effort is worth it.
"I felt like, I strongly believe in this,” said Noa Ashkenazi, an Israeli American who recently graduated from DePaul University. She joined the RJC after a non-Jewish lecturer at the Chicago-area university who was sympathetic to Israel was suspended because of a confrontation with pro-Palestinian students.
Ashkenazi, sporting an RJC T-shirt along with her fellow canvassers, rushed through her assigned Beachwood streets minding a mass of rain clouds scuttering closer.
Tracy Turoff, a local Democratic Party activist, recalled having coffee with a friend in her 80s about a week earlier who said she had changed her mind: She would not vote for Obama and was now leaning toward McCain. Her pro-McCain daughter, she told Turoff, had raised alarms about Obama’s association with William Ayers, a former domestic terrorist.
“I walked through it with her,” Turoff recalled. “Obama was 8 years old when Ayers was a terrorist, Ayers is now a respected educator, Obama and a lot of others were on a charitable board with him.”
A few days later, Turoff’s friend called to say she was switching back to Obama.
Gayle Horwitz, enjoying Sunday brunch with Turoff at Jack’s, said she was awed by the Obama get-out-the-vote operation. She had volunteered and had completed a training session the week before.
Lines are expected to be long this year, especially in swing states, and the Obama campaign assigned its minions specific roles, from lawyers ready to challenge anomalies to people ready with hot and cold beverages as well as entertainment for the long wait.
“There are red, white and blue teams,” Horwitz said. “We’re making sure everyone who has expressed an interest for Obama gets out to vote.”
Horwitz was optimistic; any lingering bitterness among Jewish Democrats who had backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in the primaries had dissipated. The McCain campaign had hoped to attract those votes, particularly with the choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.
The sense even among Republicans was that Obama would sweep Jewish Cleveland.
“A lot of Jewish support” for Democrats ”is traditional and historic,” said Marc Freimuth, a local RJC member and an attorney. “And a lot of it is reaction to the Bush administration and the war in Iraq and the economic disaster we find ourselves in.”
He said the pick of Palin, perceived as deeply inexperienced, also didn’t help.
Freimuth said it was to McCain’s credit that the race was this close.
“It would have been hard for any Republican to overcome that,” he said.
Still, Democrats and Republicans agree that support for McCain is strong enough in Orthodox circles that it could make the difference overall in the state. Democrats once could claim a substantial minority of the Orthodox community, but those days are likely over, said Fred Taub, a pro-Israel activist who has endorsed McCain in his newsletter, “Frum Cleveland.”
“I’m seeing mostly McCain signs” in the suburbs, Taub said over lunch at Cleveland’s only kosher Subway at the JCC. “I would have expected to see a lot more Obama/Biden.”
Both sides are still vying for however many Jewish undecided voters remain. The Youngstown community of about 2,500 drew two top advisers to a debate at the local JCC: John Lehman, a former Navy secretary who is a senior adviser to McCain, and Dan Shapiro, a chief strategist in the Obama campaign.
Barely 25 people turned up on Oct. 23, but that didn’t faze Lehman.
“Our polls show Obama only 2 points ahead in Ohio,” he told JTA. The Jewish community “has a history of very active participation, of looking at the issues and of doing the work.”