Bush Gains in Efforts to Win Over Jewish Vote
Stuart Weil, a ponytailed tropical fish farmer from Fresno, is a longtime Democrat who regularly attends synagogue. Four years ago, he voted for Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore. This year, not only does he plan to vote for President Bush, he’s urging his Jewish friends to do the same.
“He is the first president to understand the world in terms of terrorism,” said Weil, 51, one of more than 4,000 delegates this week at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the nation’s preeminent pro-Israel lobby.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. May 28, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 28, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Jewish vote -- In a Section A article May 19 on increased Jewish support for President Bush, the sponsors of a poll on Jewish public opinion were identified as the American Jewish Committee and Foreign Affairs magazine. The poll was commissioned only by the American Jewish Committee.
“He understands that the terrorism Israel has had is now the terrorism the U.S. has.”
On Tuesday, Weil and thousands of other AIPAC members welcomed Bush to their annual meeting with 21 standing ovations -- a thunderous display of affection from an audience that, while always hawkish on Israel, had long been a home to more Democrats than Republicans.
The Republican president’s reelection strategists have long hoped that White House policies that focus on fighting terror and spreading democracy through the Mideast would make longtime Jewish Democrats like Weil into Republican voters.
Jews account for 4% of voters nationwide. But in some of this year’s battleground states -- particularly Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Missouri -- a few Jewish votes could make a big difference.
Bush won about 17% of the Jewish vote in 2000, but supporters are aiming to raise that to about 30% in this election, based largely on his support for Israel.
“By defending the freedom and prosperity and security of Israel, you’re also serving the cause of America,” Bush told the AIPAC delegates Tuesday.
His 39-minute speech was interrupted repeatedly with cheering and applause. On two occasions, at least a third of the audience burst into chants of “Four more years!”
“The Jewish community is seeing that on the issues that really matter to them, the Republican Party is offering real leadership and clear vision,” said Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
GOP strategists view the Jewish community as a pillar of the Democratic electorate that is fracturing, with significant chunks beginning to fall to the Republicans. They see pro-Israel Jews as an important target in their long-term plan to “realign” the electorate and give the Republican Party majority status.
Steven Windmueller, an expert on Jewish voting behavior at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, agreed that Jewish voters were becoming less liberal, but he said the pattern was more complex than Republican strategists assumed.
“There is an element within the Jewish community that sees Israel as the primary focus of their vote,” he said. “But significant numbers of Jews, and I would argue the overwhelming number of Jews, have a whole spectrum of interests that includes not only homeland security but domestic issues as well.”
Since Bush came into office, his administration has made a concerted effort to court the Jewish community, both for donations and for votes. In just the last two weeks, in addition to the president’s speech to AIPAC, Vice President Dick Cheney went to Florida to address the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice spoke to the Anti-Defamation League’s annual conference in Washington.
Moreover, Jewish leaders have had extraordinary access to the president, who hosted White House meetings “a bunch” of times with groups of rabbis and other Jewish officials, according to a senior administration official. By contrast, Bush has yet to meet with bishops from the United Methodist church -- the president’s own denomination -- who have requested a visit since he took office.
“My impression was of a very human and humble individual who wanted to dialogue and not lecture, to share and not pontificate,” said Jacob Rubenstein, chief rabbi at Young Israel in Scarsdale, N.Y., who attended one session in the Oval Office last fall.
For many Jews who remain liberal on social issues, Bush’s record on Israel has created a dilemma. Many are uncomfortable with the president’s opposition to abortion rights, his limits on embryonic stem cell research, his push for a federal constitutional ban on gay marriage and other initiatives that have won him praise from his political base of conservative Christians.
Stuart Matlins, president of Jewish Lights Publishing in Woodstock, Vt., said he liked Bush’s pro-Israel philosophy. But when he thinks about domestic policy, he has second thoughts about the president.
“The Supreme Court appointments are coming up,” Matlins said. “Who would he appoint? Oh my God.”
One of the few polls of Jewish public opinion suggests some movement toward Bush. The survey, conducted last November and December for the American Jewish Committee and Foreign Affairs magazine, found that 24% of respondents said they had voted for Bush in 2000, and 31% said they planned to support him this fall.
But the poll is unlikely to be an accurate gauge of voter behavior because it surveyed all adults identifying themselves as Jewish, not just those registered to vote or likely to vote.
In his AIPAC address, Bush offered little new substance. He repeated his standard language on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including his endorsement of a “two-state” solution and demands that Palestinians replace their leaders and renounce terror.
He described Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw from Gaza as “a bold, courageous step.” However, Bush did not repeat assurances that Israel should be able to keep some West Bank settlements and that Palestinians should not expect a “right of return” to their former homes in Israel -- omissions that worried some delegates.
Still, many delegates said Bush had been the best friend Israel had had in the White House in a long time.
For his part, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) also has strong pro-Israel credentials, and groups such as AIPAC described his voting record as stellar. Nonetheless, the Bush campaign has sought to portray Kerry as waffling in his support for Israel.
Kerry did not help his own position much with early comments saying he would consider appointing former Secretary of State James A. Baker III or former President Carter, both seen by some Jews as biased against Israel, as an envoy to the Middle East. Kerry has since retracted the suggestion.
Kerry’s campaign staff said they did not plan to cede the Jewish vote to the Republicans, and they emphasized what they called Bush’s cozy relationship with Saudi Arabia. This week, Democrats have criticized the White House for failing to condemn remarks this month by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah that claimed “Zionism is behind terrorist actions in the kingdom.”
“John Kerry has a flawless record on Israel,” said spokesman Phil Singer. “And his progressive domestic agenda is much more in line with the views of the mainstream Jewish community than the one advocated by Bush.”
Weil, the Fresno fish farmer, thinks otherwise. But his efforts to form a local branch of the Republican Jewish Coalition are stirring opposition among Jews in his community. “Oh, the hate mail I’ve been getting,” he said. “You should see what they say.”
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