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War for the Jewish Vote

In a packed ballroom at the Washington Hilton this week, Middle East policy experts talked authoritatively and soberly about serious geopolitical issues.

If you listened very carefully, however, you may have heard the political ground shifting slightly.

Officially, the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference is a nonpartisan affair attended by dozens of Members of Congress and countless administration officials. Congressional leaders of both parties leap at the opportunity to speak. Five of the Democratic candidates for president showed up.

But with the war in Iraq as a backdrop, this week’s conference became a showcase for high-ranking officials of the Bush administration and pro-Israel Republican rising stars in Congress. It also became a showcase for Republicans’ aspirations for a political realignment.

With the war being fought in part to stabilize the troubled region and protect one of America’s staunchest allies, Israel, the Republicans cannot help but dream of breaking the Democrats’ already loosening grip on Jewish-American voters.

“I believe very strongly that we’re in the process of a significant shift in the voting habits of the American-Jewish community,” said Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, a D.C.-based organization. “We’re in the political equivalent of a perfect storm.”

Not only is George W. Bush the most pro-Israel president in history, Brooks said, but evangelical Christians allied with Republicans — whose religious fervor and views on social issues have often turned off Jews — are also strong boosters of Israel. Meanwhile, Democrats’ attempts to paint Bush as an extremist, he said, are failing.

Finally, Brooks said, the rhetoric of certain Democratic politicians — such as Rep. Jim Moran (Va.) and former Reps. Earl Hilliard (Ala.) and Cynthia McKinney (Ga.) — are turning voters away from the Democratic Party.

“I think for Jews today it’s tough to stay a Democrat,” said Veronica Kaufman, a delegate to the AIPAC conference from El Macero, Calif. “Republicans are the best friends that Jews and Israel have.”

While national polls show about two-thirds of Americans approving of Bush’s war effort, Jewish support for the war is generally stronger. Even in left-leaning New York City, site of two major anti-war rallies last month, a recent poll found voters split on the war, but Jewish voters supporting it 56 percent to 35 percent.

“For every American, there’s the rally ’round the flag; for Jewish Americans, there’s the added element of Israel,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Hamden, Conn., which conducted the New York City survey.

But Carroll, who monitors states with significant blocs of Jewish voters such as New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, cautions against assuming that any political realignment is under way.

“While the Democrats seem to be all over the lot [on the issues of war and Israel], to make any long-term prediction is silly,” he said.

To be sure, AIPAC is hardly representative of the American Jewish community. Jews range all over the American political spectrum, and since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president, a majority of Jews have voted for liberal candidates with a commitment to social and economic justice.

But AIPAC is a political powerhouse, and its positions and priorities help inform the political and policy debates in Washington.

It wasn’t surprising to see Secretary of State Colin Powell treated like a conquering hero at the conference this week (as was National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, reportedly, in a closed session).

What was instructive was to see relatively young non-Jewish Members of Congress, like Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), also treated like heroes. And Santorum and Kirk, at least, supplied dozens of applause lines.

Santorum, who is about to introduce the Syria Accountability Act in the Senate (with California Democrat Barbara Boxer) demanding greater U.S. sanctions against Syria unless the country stops supplying weapons and material to Iraq, called Israel’s foes in the Middle East not just anti-Semitic, but opposed to freedom. He compared them to the Nazis in Germany.

“Now as before the enemies of the Jewish people are the enemies of freedom itself,” he said.

Kirk, a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, also sounded the theme that Israel is hated in the Middle East not just because it’s a Jewish state, but also because it’s a democracy. He said U.S. foreign policymakers have occasionally been blind to the faults of Arab nations as they search for allies in the region.

“The Arab world has gotten a moral ‘bye’ from the United States, and frankly it shouldn’t,” Kirk told the AIPAC conference, to sustained cheers.

In an interview after his AIPAC speech, Santorum said it is easy to understand why some Jews are turning to the GOP.

“Republicans are giving Jewish voters a lot of reasons why Jews should be supportive of the party and this administration, and the other side is giving plenty of reasons why they should not be,” he said.

But Leon Fuerth, who was national security adviser to then-Vice President Al Gore, said it is too early to project the current political climate onto the 2004 elections or beyond.

“I think it’s almost unknowable,” said Fuerth, now a professor of international affairs at George Washington University. “So much is dependent on how things turn out in Iraq.”

Listening to the Republicans at the AIPAC conference, Fuerth couldn’t resist a jab, suggesting that their devotion to installing democracies around the world is relatively new.

“I know it would do Jimmy Carter’s heart good to hear democracy described as the No. 1 goal of American foreign policy,” he said.

But while foreign policy may be the arena that Republicans are hoping to use most to make domestic political gains, Jews make up only a small percentage of the American electorate. Where any newfound Jewish allegiance to the Republican Party can make a difference is in individual races in states with large Jewish populations.

In New York, Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition said, Republicans from former Rep. Rick Lazio to Rudolph Giuliani to George Pataki to Michael Bloomberg have gotten anywhere from 46 percent to 70 percent of the Jewish vote in recent elections in the traditionally liberal state. In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush (R) got 44 percent of the Jewish vote in his re-election campaign last year.

In the contested 2000 presidential election, Bush received 35 percent of the Jewish vote in Florida, Brooks said — well ahead of the 20 percent of the Jewish vote he got nationwide.

“If he didn’t get that, he would have lost,” Brooks said.

But in one state with a sizeable Jewish population, Democrats are hoping to capitalize on Sen. Arlen Specter’s (R-Pa.) luncheon meeting last week with the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Specter, who is up for re-election next year, is Jewish.

In a fusillade of e-mails and news releases this week, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — which has yet to produce a viable challenger to Specter — listed two decades’ worth of Falwell statements that suggest he is intolerant of Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians, not to mention gays, feminists and minorities.

“Agree with these statements, Mr. Specter?” the DSCC asked in a statement. “Why would an avowed, pro-choice, moderate Republican be meeting with an equal opportunity offender and darling of the far right wing like Jerry Falwell in the first place?”

Those appeals to Jewish voters, Brooks predicted, will be less and less effective in the future. In fact, he said, Republicans do not have to do anything dramatic to continue attracting Jewish votes.

“I think this has the potential to be a long-term and self-sustaining trend,” he said.