Kerry, Bush Try to Woo Jews in Swing-state Florida

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida - Fort Lauderdale must be one of the most sought-after Jewish communities in the United States these days, with both presidential candidates pursuing undecided voters in key districts of the battleground state of Florida. Synagogues and community centers are full of political activity, and at home, the telephone calls from political activists never stop.

In 2000, Florida Jews overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidate Al Gore. But today, both parties view the Jews as swing votes.

On Tuesday, more than 200 Jews came to a local Reform synagogue to hear a debate between Bush and Kerry representatives. Dan Cohen, a former AIPAC official, spoke for Bush, while Ralph Nurnberger, another former AIPAC official who also once worked for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, represented Kerry.

Much of the debate focused on the candidates' attitude toward Israel. "Israel is important to Kerry, but for Bush, it is much more than that," argued Cohen. "For him, Israel is a strategic ally in the war on terror." Nurnberger retorted that Bush "abandoned Israel and the Middle East at the beginning of his term and allowed Arab violence to run riot, without making any diplomatic effort."

But when the time came for questions from the audience, it became clear that for these Jews, domestic affairs were the top priority. They wanted answers on the economy, social security and the health system - just like non-Jewish Americans.

Moreover, conversations with them afterward indicated that in fact, they are not undecided at all: Most had already made up their minds who to vote for and came just for fun. Judging from these conversations, as well as from applause during the debate, Broward County's Jews will vote Democratic. "This just strengthened our support for Kerry," said one elderly woman, and her two friends nodded.

But in a state where the 2000 election was decided by just over 500 votes, neither side wants to miss a chance to persuade a single Jewish voter. Last week, President George Bush told a Florida rally that he plans to sign into law a bill requiring the U.S. to track anti-Semitism around the world. And Senator John Kerry, addressing a Jewish crowd in West Palm Beach, described his first visit to Masada, which ended with him and his companions standing atop the fortress and shouting "Am Yisrael Chai!" ("the nation of Israel lives").

In between the candidates' visits, their place is taken by their representatives. For Kerry, that means mainly senior Jewish congressmen such as senators Joe Lieberman and Joe Biden and Representative Robert Wexler. They tout Kerry's voting record on the Middle East, his support for the disengagement plan, and his opposition to arms sales to Saudi Arabia and to dialogue with Yasser Arafat.

Bush's representatives have included former New York Mayor Ed Koch and former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, one of the most prominent Jews in the Bush Administration's early years. On Wednesday, Fleischer told Jewish Republicans in Delray Beach that the president's job is "to stand proudly by the State of Israel until the Palestinians are ready to talk."

Yoni Bock, who runs the National Jewish Democratic Council's operation in Florida, says that though his rival, the Republican Jewish Coalition, has invested a lot of money over the last four years in wooing Florida's Jews, he does not believe it will help. "I think most Jews will vote for Kerry," he said.

But the Republicans are not expecting a revolution. All they want is a few more votes - which could be decisive.