WASHINGTON, Aug. 17 (JTA) — Now that George W. Bush has solidified his position as the front runner for the Republican presidential nomination by winning last weekend’s Iowa straw poll, the Texas governor will try to find support in unconventional places. But can a pro-life governor — who wants church and state to “work together,” thinks schools should display the Ten Commandments and once said that only followers of Jesus can go to heaven — break the Democratic Party’s lock on Jewish voters? Jewish Republicans certainly think so. “He’s somebody who is the perfect model of who the Jewish community is looking for in a candidate,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. For Brooks and other Republicans, Bush’s mantra of “compassionate conservatism” has struck a chord. “A lot of the Jewish community can relate to him because he’s running a campaign that’s not very threatening. You can’t demonize his campaign as being a captive of the religious right,” said Brooks, who stressed that his group officially has no favorite in the race for the nomination. Eager to reclaim the White House Bush’s father lost in 1992 to President Clinton, many Republican governors, members of Congress and big donors have united around Bush’s campaign. The Texas governor’s record fund raising, which has netted almost $40 million, has given Bush the political power to reshape the primary landscape. But Republican unity, of course, does not translate into Jewish support. Clinton and Vice President Al Gore received about 80 percent of the Jewish vote in 1992 and again in 1996. Bush’s supporters hope he can make some headway among Jewish voters with his support for Israel. He traveled there with the Republican Jewish Coalition last year and recently issued a statement from his spokesman that he would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as soon as he is elected. “That’s a position I’d be happy to take to the Jewish community,” Brooks said. Bush has quietly distanced himself from his father’s legacy of confrontation with the Jewish community. Relations between the United States and Washington soured during President Bush’s term when he attacked Jewish lobbyists and his secretary of state, James Baker, publicly criticized Israel. While George W. Bush’s strong early showing has enabled him to take a more moderate position along the GOP’s political spectrum, he has drawn fire from many in the Jewish community on a host of domestic issues, especially on the church-state front. “In every instance where my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first to faith-based organizations, charities and community groups that have shown their ability to save and change lives,” Bush said last month in a speech in Indianapolis. “We will rally the armies of compassion in our communities to fight a very different war against poverty and hopelessness, a daily battle waged house to house and heart to heart.” Bush went on to promise that if elected he would “allow private and religious groups to compete to provide services in every federal, state and local social program. We will create an advocate position, reporting directly to the president, to ensure that charities are not secularized or slighted.” Bush hopes to fund many of these programs by encouraging “an outpouring of giving” by creating a new charity tax credit “which will allow individuals to give a part of what they owe in state taxes directly to private and religious institutions fighting poverty in their own communities.” Although many Jews oppose using religious institutions to provide government-funded social services, Bush could gain support among Orthodox Jews with positions like this. “Gov. Bush has clearly championed these kind of initiatives in Texas,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs. “In the Orthodox community, this is one of a set of issues that will help him get support,” he said. While the Orthodox community “is in favor of charitable choice,” as these initiatives are known, Diament said, “we are still waiting for explicit statements on Israel, Jerusalem and church-state.” In June, when Bush called for schools and government buildings to hang the “standard version” of the Ten Commandments, he was quickly attacked by many church-state watchdogs. Bush’s idea “dramatizes again the folly of allowing the heavy hand of government to shape our religious lives,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “The naive assumption that a ‘standard version’ of the Ten Commandments could be easily agreed to ignores the conviction with which different faith groups embrace their teachings and will make those children whose version is not selected feel like outsiders,” Saperstein said. The controversy over the Ten Commandments came shortly after Bush tried to silence criticism for remarks he made six years ago that were interpreted as precluding Jews from going to heaven. After returning from a trip to Israel last November, Bush told reporters, “My faith tells me that acceptance of Jesus Christ as my savior is my salvation, and I believe I made it clear that it is not the governor’s role to decide who goes to heaven.” Around the same time, he sent a letter apologizing for his remarks to the Anti-Defamation League. The letter prompted the group’s national director, Abraham Foxman, to say “the matter of his 1993 statement is now behind us.” But others in the Jewish community continue to press Bush on the issue, which is likely to follow him, if he campaigns actively for Jewish support. Although Bush has faced criticism for many of his pronouncements on religious issues, he has received high marks in Texas for his support for the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which restored protections to religious liberties after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal version of the law in 1997. But more recently Bush has been criticized for not standing up and supporting a hate crimes bill that proponents say died this year after the governor did not lobby for it. While staunchly pro-life, Bush has moved to take the issue off the political table. “Abortion is not going to be an issue he is going to force onto the American political scene,” Brooks said. Bush has committed himself not to have a litmus test on abortion for a running mate — or for judges if elected. As the son of a former president and the self-declared “compassionate conservative” criss-crosses the country seeking support from minorities, Jews and others, he’s attacking critics who charge that his ideas are “crumbs of compassion.” By next year’s primaries, he says he hopes to convince skeptics that they are actually “the bread of life.”
BEHIND THE HEADLINES Will George W. Bush be the candidate to break the Democratic lock on Jews?