WASHINGTON (JTA) — Barack Obama won’t show up on the vote tallies after polls close in Florida’s Republican primary on Jan. 31, but the president’s supporters already are waging a fight for the Sunshine State.
Democrats are rolling out a campaign to rival any of the GOP candidates, with a particular focus on the state’s substantial Jewish community.
Democratic officials said that volunteers in Florida already had made nearly 600,000 calls to supporters and conducted thousands of training sessions, many of them focusing on the Jewish community, 10 months before the general election. The Obama campaign has opened nine offices in the state.
“Florida is the most significant battleground state, and will be in 2012,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, in a conference call Monday with the Jewish media. “We’re taking nothing for granted. We’re in the process of using these primaries as an organizing tool.”
Wasserman Schultz said Jewish surrogates were targeting communities across the state, defending Obama’s Israel record as well as emphasizing differences on health care and social issues, like abortion.
The rollout was planned months ago, well before Newt Gingrich’s stunning upset win Saturday in the South Carolina GOP primary buried the notion of Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, as the party’s impervious front-runner. The latest polls from Florida show Gingrich pulling ahead of Romney by 7 to 9 percentage points; just a week earlier Romney had enjoyed double-digit leads in the state’s polls.
Florida is a testing ground because it is the first large and diverse state, said Nancy Ratzan, a former president of the National Council of Jewish Women who is now active in the Democratic Party.
“Florida is more reflective of what they’re going to find in other parts of the country,” she said.
Romney and Gingrich head into Florida with few holds barred, each striving to identify the other as a member of the “elites” reviled by the Republican base.
A Romney ad released Monday accused Gingrich of making money off the financial crisis by taking money from a government-backed mortgage company. It said that the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and Georgia congressman was a Washington “insider.”
Gingrich has depicted Romney as uncaring, drawing on his career as a venture capitalist. He also has seized on Romney’s tax returns, just released, which show investments in the same government-backed mortgage company that paid Gingrich for consulting fees.
Noam Neusner, a former domestic policy adviser to President George W. Bush, said that Gingrich had upended the race with his South Carolina victory and the race was now wide open.
Neusner, who has not endorsed a candidate, noted that Romney had won the “Jewish donors” primary, drawing the largest assemblage of Jewish supporters. But he noted that Gingrich was a known quantity among Jewish conservatives going back to his days as House speaker from 1995 to 1998.
Gingrich’s positions are “very similar to Romney’s and certainly very acceptable to Republican voters,” he said.
Tevi Troy, a deputy health secretary under President George W. Bush who now advises the Romney campaign, suggested — very delicately — that Gingrich’s mercurial personality would be an issue as the campaign rolls forward.
“You have to choose wisely about who the right candidate is,” Troy said. “Here you have a guy with strong leadership experience and in business, and has a good chance of beating President Obama and running a strong, competent foreign policy.”
Neusner acknowledged that “there’s a greater comfort level with a certain constancy of personality in Romney.”
“Gingrich is admired” for his intellect, Neusner said, “but there’s greater enthusiasm that Romney could do better in the general” election.
Both presidential hopefuls, as well as fellow candidate Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, have made Obama’s relationship with Israel a key target of their foreign policy campaigning.
“We’re very comfortable saying that so long as Barack Obama or Ron Paul are not the president, Israel will be a much safer place,” said Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the West Palm Beach Republican Party who has not endorsed a candidate.
Dinerstein said that Republican Jews were too small a constituency to expect to be courted intensely in the primary, which is open only to registered Republicans. But that will change ahead of the general election, he said, when he expects the eventual Republican candidate to draw Jewish independents and centrist Democrats because of Obama’s Israel record.
“President Obama has no chance of getting 78 percent of the vote,” he said, a reference to the level of Jewish support Obama garnered in the 2008 elections, according to exit polling.
The Republican National Committee has identified Florida as a swing state with a substantial Jewish population where Jewish votes could make the difference, according to an activist who saw an RNC memo late last year. The memo listed Jewish voters in the state as numbering 450,000, which seems to comport with figures from Jewish groups that estimate the state’s overall Jewish population at 640,000. Other such states listed in the memo were Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Nevada, according to the activist.
The importance of Florida’s Jewish vote is one area where there is bipartisan agreement. Obama proxies in Florida include Wasserman Schultz and Robert Wexler, a former Florida congressman who now heads the Center for Middle East Peace in Washington.
Democrats are emphasizing domestic issues in their approach to Jewish voters, as well as Obama’s Israel record. Wasserman Schultz said on the call that Republican plans to privatize parts of Medicare threatened a key safety net for the elderly.
Romney is planning Jewish events, a campaign official said. The campaign official also said that John Bolton, the former ambassador to the United Nations who is a favorite of many hawkish Jewish conservatives, will campaign in the state for Romney ahead of the primary.
Queries to Gingrich’s campaign went unanswered. Reports say he is going into Florida without funds or organization comparable to those at Romney’s disposal.
Sheldon Adelson, the pro-Israel casino magnate who has long been close to the former House speaker, helped boost his prospects in South Carolina with a $5 million infusion to an independent pro-Gingrich group, Winning America’s Future. And on Monday it was reported that thebillionaire’s wife, Miriam, was donating another $5 million to the group.
Republicans emphasize the diplomatic disagreements that Obama has had with Israel over its settlement policies, and say the president has not done enough to isolate Iran. Democrats stress the close security relationship with Israel cultivated by Obama and say Iran is more isolated than it’s ever been because of his policies.
Ratzan, who now speaks regularly to Jewish groups on behalf of Democrats, said she is encountering the effects of a Republican attacks on Obama’s Israel record.
“I’m definitely getting questions,” she said, but the Obama campaign and the administration “are doing a good job of getting the message out.”
A case in point, she said, was the 7-minute video that the Obama campaign released last week that culled from news footage a slew of testimonials to the president’s commitment to Israel from a slate of Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Alan Solow, a key Obama fundraiser and the immediate past president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said it is critical to get out Obama’s pro-Israel message now.
“We think it’s important that we don’t allow the Republicans to establish the narrative regarding what the president has done for Israel,” he said, adding that the timing was fortuitous.
“We thought that this was a good time, generally, to do the video,” Solow said, noting that the election season had been launched in earnest. “It’s a happy coincidence for us that we’re doing it at a time when there was attention for Florida.”