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Jewish Voters, Reliably Democratic, Rethink Bush

Times Staff Writer

Joseph Lubeck is a neurologist in this suburban Philadelphia town who has supported Democratic presidential candidates since, as an 18-year-old in 1972, he “relished the ability to vote for George McGovern.”

Now he is wondering what his liberal neighbors would think if he were to put a sign on his lawn signaling his choice in this year’s race: President Bush.

Herb Denenberg is a 74-year-old Democrat in nearby Radnor, Pa., who was appointed state insurance commissioner by a Democratic governor and almost won the party’s nomination for Senate in 1974. This year, he too plans to vote for Bush.

Encouraged by signs that Lubeck and Denenberg may be part of a trend, Republicans are making a strong play for one of the nation’s most reliably liberal and Democratic constituencies: Jewish voters.

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Bush has much room for improvement -- surveys showed he got 19% of the Jewish vote nationally in 2000, while Democrat Al Gore won 79%. But the president’s firm support for Israel and his aggressive response to the Sept. 11 attacks -- and concerns about the Democratic commitment to these causes -- have earned Bush a second look from some Jewish voters.

“The Democrats don’t have the stomach for this fight,” said Denenberg, referring to the threat from Islamic terrorists.

Republican strategists said they believed the president could make some modest inroads into the Jewish community, but polls so far offer mixed indications of whether that was happening.

Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic candidate, is not taking Jewish voters for granted. During a swing through Florida on Monday, Kerry vouched for his record on Israel, saying he had steadfastly supported the country.

“I am proud to say to you, throughout my 20-year career in the United States Senate, I have a 100% record on every resolution, on every vote, on every appropriation,” he told several hundred seniors gathered for a morning rally at a retirement community in West Palm Beach. “On everything that has made a difference to Israel’s qualitative military edge, I have been there and I will be there.”

Although Jews make up about 2% of the nation’s population, they constituted almost 4% of voters in recent nationwide elections.

The GOP strategists speak longingly of matching President Reagan’s modern Republican high-water mark: winning 39% of the Jewish vote in 1980. They are pouring resources into battleground states -- including Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania -- where any shift in past voting patterns could have a significant effect.

David Alpher, business manager for the Jewish Exponent, a weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, reports a 50% increase in advertising from four years ago, with Republicans outspending Democrats 2 to 1. In a recent issue, a full-page ad promoted Bush’s support for Israel, showing him praying at the Western Wall and wearing a yarmulke.

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“I’ve never seen such a frenzy for the Jewish vote,” said Ira Foreman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “The Republicans have expended tremendous resources on this.”

Kerry’s camp is sufficiently concerned that it dispatched his brother Cameron, who converted to Judaism many years ago, on the road to make the Democratic candidate’s case in usually reliable Jewish communities. And for the first time, Foreman’s National Jewish Democratic Council assigned a political operative to Philadelphia to match the staff already in place for the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Pennsylvania is one of the campaign’s key battlegrounds, and evidence of intense politicking marks its landscape. Upon arriving in Philadelphia on Interstate 95, drivers are greeted by a billboard that says “Voter Apathy Is So 2000.” And on television, political ads can be seen during almost every commercial break.

At the University of Pennsylvania, Jewish students have been registering with enthusiasm, knowing that their votes could make a difference.

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“It’s very hot to vote,” said Yael May, a 21-year-old student from Potomac, Md., who has been active in the Jewish youth group on campus.

If Bush is to win in Pennsylvania -- and recent polls show it leaning toward Kerry -- an uptick in Jewish support for the president would seem essential. It’s difficult to predict if that will happen. What is clear is that among some Jewish voters in Philadelphia’s suburbs, Bush’s support for Israel has complicated their decision.

“There is a sense of angst about how to vote and real discomfort about Israel’s [prospects for] survival,” said Rabbi Neil Cooper of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El.

He added that within his congregation, which generally votes Democratic, most of those backing Bush were keeping their own counsel. “Bush supporters play their cards close to the vest,” he said, because to many of the congregation’s die-hard Democrats, voting for the president was “akin to political intermarriage.”

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Marc Felgoise has no such qualms. A 39-year-old commercial real estate broker with a long record of raising money for candidates of both parties who support Israel, Felgoise recently sparred with one of his mother’s colleagues at her law office about Bush’s domestic policies.

“Of course, I wish President Bush would increase funds for stem cell research,” he said. “But if Israel is not safe and secure, what do I care about abortion and fresh air?”

The conflicts about the candidates surfaced recently when Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El held a presidential election forum. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) argued that Bush had failed in foreign policy because he was fixated on Iraq, and former New York Mayor Edward Koch promoted Bush’s backing of Israel.

The temple was packed. Cars overflowed from its parking lot to a nearby lawn. Outside the sanctuary, workers for the Republican Jewish Coalition and the National Jewish Democratic Council manned tables with campaign literature, and both sides quickly ran out of political buttons -- “Kerry-Edwards 2004" in Hebrew disappeared, as did the ones that proclaimed “I’m Proud to be a Jewish Republican.”

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Afterward, there was a reception in the temple’s sukkah -- a trellis-like structure erected each year for the Jewish harvest festival.

Gary E. Erlbaum, a Jewish activist in Philadelphia and an executive with the group that publishes the Exponent, said friends balked when he declared himself for Bush.

“Most people I know hate Bush,” he said. “But I prefer activism to doing nothing. What happened to us on 9/11 is a crescendo of all the terrorist attacks on the U.S. during the previous four administrations, particularly under Clinton, that went unanswered. Some good people did not respond. We were asleep at the wheel.”

Not everyone agreed that Bush’s support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had been good for Israel, or that U.S. policy toward the Jewish state was the most important issue.

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“Bush has done a lot for Israel,” said Norm Foxman, an optometrist. “But a lot of us feel Bush has done a lot of negative things for the United States.”

Citing the budget deficit, Foxman predicted that the debt would “haunt us. Our money will be worthless in 10 years. Can it happen here? Yes, the U.S. can become a second-rate nation.”

The next morning, at a breakfast following morning prayers, congregants were still mulling the previous evening’s political discussions. Ken Shapiro, a lawyer, said the forum had left him unsure.

“It’s a tossup,” he said, recalling his work as a Democrat, starting in high school in 1968 when he and a friend stuffed envelopes to help Robert F. Kennedy in his presidential bid.

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“I’ll still probably vote for Kerry, more out of history than anything else,” he said. “But this is a tough one.”


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