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America Decides 2004 Sensing Kerry Weakness, Bush Reaches out Aggressively to Jews

August 23, 2004
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Republican Jews believe they can sell their party and their candidate this year on more than just a pro-Israel record. President Bush’s support for Israel is at the heart of Republican courting of the Jewish vote, but the party also is stressing other facets of Bush’s leadership in the international community.

They’re also attacking Bush’s opponent, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), for an alleged lack of leadership, and — in a change of strategy — are delving into domestic policy.

With the nation’s attention soon to focus on the Republican National Convention in New York later this month, Jewish Republicans are hoping to highlight Bush administration actions they think could swing Jewish voters to the GOP.

Some recent polling shows that Republican inroads into the Jewish vote are minimal so far, yet strategists say they’re intent on attacking what they see as weaknesses in Kerry’s record and in his outreach to the Jewish com! munity.

When Republicans first started talking about making inroads into the traditionally Democratic Jewish voting bloc, party leaders said they would focus on the positives of Bush’s record, rather than attacking Kerry.

Marc Racicot, chairman of the Bush/Cheney campaign, told JTA in March that he did not believe Kerry was weak on Israel, and that the campaign would focus instead on comparing the candidates’ defense and security records.

But Republican Jewish officials said they began to see Kerry as potentially vulnerable in the Jewish community after his performance in front of the Anti-Defamation League in May — Kerry’s only major speech to a Jewish audience so far in the campaign — and believed the Democrats were not actively trying to court Jewish voters.

“The ADL speech was totally underwhelming,” one Jewish Republican said. “It showed his strategy was to move closer to the president and hold the base he already has.”

That analysis has led to an! increased effort by Republican Jews. In addition to highlighting Bush ‘s support for Israel, their appeal to Jewish voters has centered on the administration’s leadership against terrorism, Bush’s efforts against global anti-Semitism and his leadership in volatile times.

By contrast, they portray Kerry as someone who has not led on Middle East issues, and — customizing their broad “flip-flopper” argument for a Jewish audience — say he has taken contradictory stances on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The message is, ‘we don’t know where John Kerry really stands,’ ” said Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “Right now, given how important things are and how many lives are at stake, John Kerry is a risk the Jewish community can not afford.”

The campaign appears to be testing different anti-Kerry messages, with a variety of results. Jewish voters continue to be concerned by a statement Kerry made during the Democratic primaries suggesting that former President Jimmy Carter or former Secretary of ! State James Baker could serve as envoys to the Middle East. Both men are seen in the Jewish community as being biased toward the Palestinians, and are deeply unpopular among supporters of Israel.

Kerry since has stepped back from that proposal, and aides have suggested privately that the comments were entered accidentally into his speech.

The Bush camp also has had some success in undermining Kerry’s stance on Israel’s West Bank security barrier. Kerry was critical of the fence in comments to the Arab American Institute last summer, but later clarified his remarks.

But they have all but stopped attacking Kerry for calling Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat a “statesman” in his 1997 book, “The New War.” Jewish voters seemed to understand that Arafat was perceived differently in 1997 than now.

Bush backers are working to juxtapose what they see as Kerry’s shaky record on issues Jews care about with Bush’s strong leadership.

In a coordinated effor! t, the White House released a 24-page booklet highlighting Bush’s acti ons over the past four years on such issues. It lists all of the times Bush met with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, lit Chanukah candles at the White House and spoke out against anti-Semitism.

It also includes laudatory quotes from a wide range of American Jewish leaders, including several who disagree with Bush on other issues, predominantly his domestic priorities.

It’s unclear to what extent Bush’s strategy is working, however. Republican Jews continue to stress anecdotal evidence that more Jews are coming to their side, and the Republican Jewish Coalition says its membership has grown from 3,000 people in 2002 to 10,000 this year.

But Democrats contend the Republican effort has been for naught. In a recent poll, conducted by a Democratic polling firm, only 22 percent of American Jews said they favored Bush over Kerry, statistically even with the number Bush received in the 2000 presidential race, based on exit polls.

Kerry campaign officials say they! believe the poll shows their base of support in the Jewish community is strong.

“We’ve made it very clear from the beginning that we will take no community and no part of a community for granted, least of all the American Jewish community,” said Jay Footlik, senior advisor on Middle East and Jewish affairs for the Kerry campaign.

Footlik said Kerry’s campaign is working to educate the community about Kerry’s “impeccable” record on Mideast issues and his views on domestic issues.

At first, it seemed the White House would virtually ignore domestic concerns when talking to Jewish voters. In the wake of terrorism and attacks against Israel, Republican Jews were banking on the idea that Jewish voters would care more about the international scene than about domestic issues.

But that policy is changing: The White House and the Bush/Cheney campaign both are looking to highlight positive effects Bush’s domestic programs have had on Jews.

The White House booklet inc! ludes discussion of faith-based initiatives and highlights the Seattle Hebrew Academy, which received federal emergency relief aid after an earthquake because of a change in federal regulations.

The goal is to prevent Jewish voters from automatically dismissing Bush because of domestic issues, arguing that Jews will be more likely to embrace the president if they understand the motivations behind his policies, even if they don’t support them.

Strategists contrast it to the Kerry campaign’s efforts to position Kerry as comparable to Bush on Israel and the Middle East, hoping Jewish voters will move past those issues to domestic topics, where they feel they will fare better.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) a key Jewish surrogate for the Bush campaign, said he believes Jews might support Bush’s stance on faith-based initiatives if they understood it better.

“There’s an understanding that if a Jewish agency is doing good things in the community, it should be just as likely to get a government grant as one without a Star of David on the! door,” Coleman told JTA at the Democratic National Convention in Boston last month, where he was on hand as part of the Republicans’ rapid response team.

The emphasis on faith-based initiatives is an interesting choice for the Republicans, considering that a majority of American Jews, and most Jewish organizations with the exception of Orthodox groups, do not support the program, and fear it breaches the separation of church and state.

Republican Jewish officials say there was a need to portray the administration’s domestic policies as not outside the mainstream. They also are touching on the president’s work on the economy and healthcare

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