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Cantor Pushes to Win Converts

The ballroom at the Plaza Hotel was already jammed to its ornate rafters with more than 1,000 attendees by the time Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) arrived there Monday afternoon to address a Republican Jewish Coalition gathering.

With the overflow crowd seemingly raising the room’s temperature a degree a minute, Cantor did his best to get them even more fired up.

Surveying the eclectic mix of out-of-towners and New York powerbrokers sprinkled with a handful of Hasidic Jews, Cantor smiled and said, “Who says Jews aren’t Republicans?”

The subsequent ovation was enthusiastic, and a lower roar continued as Cantor sped through introductions of several GOP elected officials and candidates on hand, some of them Jewish and some of them not. The Virginia lawmaker made a few more remarks praising Israel, criticizing Yasser Arafat and predicting four more years for George W. Bush, then slipped out of the building into the afternoon sun for a ride to his next event.

The Chief Deputy Majority Whip’s day was not so different from those of most GOP lawmakers in town this week, a blizzard of speeches and schmoozing. But none of his colleagues are playing quite the same role he is — that of the only Jewish House Republican in the city with the world’s largest Jewish population.

That distinction already has helped Cantor boost his Washington profile in just his second term in the House, and it certainly doesn’t hurt in New York. On Sunday night, an event filled with mostly Jewish donors yielded roughly $500,000 for his leadership fundraising committee, ERICPAC.

But while he has managed to raise both his profile and his campaign account balance, Cantor also is pursuing a more elusive goal: trying to bring a traditionally Democratic constituency into the Republican fold.

“We have moved away from sort of a generational attachment to the Democrat[ic] party,” Cantor said as his rented SUV inched through Midtown traffic toward the Plaza earlier on Tuesday. “In the mainstream of the American Jewish community the issues of lower taxes and economic prosperity … those issues of opportunity have really begun to take hold of the younger Jewish electorate.”

Cantor emphasized economic matters because surveys have shown American Jews still tend to be on the liberal end of the spectrum on a variety of other domestic policy areas. And Democrats argue that for all of the GOP’s efforts, Jews won’t be switching parties en masse anytime soon.

A poll taken in July by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for two Democratic groups showed likely Jewish voters preferring John Kerry over President Bush, 75 percent to 22 percent. Exit polls put Bush’s Jewish support at 19 percent in 2000.

“That’s a partisan poll,” Cantor said. “Take it for what it’s worth. Really, they wouldn’t be taking a poll if they weren’t afraid of losing support.”

Cantor and other Republicans active in the Jewish community — including strongly pro-Israel Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) — believe the Republican record on the crucial issues of Israel and terrorism will help bring Jewish voters into the party despite disagreements in other areas.

“Certainly there are plenty in the Jewish community who still hold on to very extreme environmental positions and other positions in the social arena that may not feel comfortable [in the GOP], but I think this year Israel and the survival of Israel is so important that I think many Jews are going to be making a priority decision,” Cantor said.

The party’s support for Israel doesn’t always bring positive publicity for Cantor and his fellow Republicans. The FBI reportedly is investigating whether a Pentagon official passed classified documents to Israel through a prominent Washington group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

AIPAC, which strongly has denied the reported allegations, is sponsoring several convention-related events in New York this week. Cantor and other Republican officials said they saw no evidence that Members were backing away from the group or its events as a result of the charges.

“I don’t think Israel would have any interest nor would it have any benefit in putting spies in this country,” said Cantor. “I just think [the charges] are false. I know AIPAC. They are an upstanding and decent group of individuals who are Americans who believe in the law of the land.”

While the alleged AIPAC connection may not have affected Cantor’s opinion of the group, it was on the minds of some at Tuesday’s RJC event. As he approached the revolving doors into the Plaza lobby, Cantor was stopped by a CNN producer who immediately put him on camera to discuss the controversy.

Even with that temporary distraction, Cantor feels relatively at home in the Big Apple. He met his wife here when he was in graduate school at Columbia University, and he returns more frequently than your average Southern Republican lawmaker.

“[Cantor] is an excellent draw in places where some Republicans can’t go,” said a GOP leadership aide, stressing that Cantor is particularly effective in urban areas.

Typically, Cantor will go into Jewish areas and, when he’s not raising money for himself, he will bring other Republicans with him to make the point that the GOP is the pro-Israel party.

“We spend a lot of time up here [in New York],” Cantor said. “We spend a lot of time in South Florida, in Palm Beach County and Broward County which are heavily Jewish and heavily Democratic. We spend time in large cities such as Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Philadelphia, Los Angeles. These are not typical Republican strongholds.”

While his Jewish roots and his duties in the Republican leadership have kept him busy enough in New York, Cantor also has more traditional parochial tasks to complete.

Before going to the RJC event at the Plaza, Cantor held court at a Virginia state delegation party at a restaurant in Chelsea Piers. After attendees had been treated to boat rides around the Statue of Liberty, Cantor thanked the corporate sponsors and led rounds of applause for the prominent Old Dominion Republicans who had made the trip north.

Afterwards, he acknowledged it was important to know your audience.

“If I’m at an event [in New York] I’ll joke and say, ‘I know you came here to hear all about Virginia politics,’” Cantor said with a laugh. “I don’t know how many Virginians they have coming in here.”

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