Arab-American Activists Back Kerry

Some 150 central activists in the Arab-American community yesterday published a formal endorsement of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

WASHINGTON - Some 150 central activists in the Arab-American community yesterday published a formal endorsement of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

The activists, headed by the Arab-American Democratic Leadership Council, believe the November 2 elections will be a turning point for Americans of Arab descent by bringing them into the Democratic camp.

But Bush still enjoys some support from the Arab-American population, support his aides have recently been trying to increase.

His campaign has been sending out Republicans of Arab descent, including Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, to try and convince voters in the battleground states of Michigan, Florida and Ohio to vote for Bush.

An opinion poll commissioned last month by the head of the leadership council, Dr. James Zogby, shows Kerry has 49 percent of the Arab-American vote, compared to 31.5 percent for Bush, with 20 percent either undecided or voting for independent candidate Ralph Nader, who is of Lebanese descent.

Four years ago, Bush won the support of 45.5 percent of Arab Americans, compared to 38 percent for Al Gore.

A lot has changed in the last four years.

One of the major factors involves the Patriot Act and the limitations it imposes on immigration from Arab and Muslim countries in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks.

The regulations compelling such immigrants to provide fingerprints, the mass deportations, the arrests of illegal Arab immigrants, the surveillance of Muslim activists in the United States - all these aroused unrest in the Arab-American community and transformed Attorney General John Ashcroft into an unwelcome figure.

Other causes of the Arab-American political swing include the stagnation of the Middle East peace process, Bush's unwavering support for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the war in Iraq - all of which have further distanced Bush from the Arab vote.

The pictures from the Abu Ghraib prison, in which American soldiers are seen abusing Iraqi prisoners, didn't help the administration either.

Up to 3 million Arab Americans are estimated to live in the U.S., many of them in key battleground states. Michigan has more than 200,000 Arab-American voters, Ohio has some 125,000, and Florida and Pennsylvania have fewer than 100,000 each.

Zogby, a Kerry supporter, said Bush has hit the ceiling of Arab-American support and will not win more than 32 percent of their vote. "Bush did close the gap, but he did it inside his own camp, in the hard core of Republican Arab Americans," said Zogby, who is ready to wager that Kerry will win 60 percent of the Arab-American vote.

The numbers show support for Bush is stronger among second- and third-generation Arab Americans and Christian Arabs, while new immigrants and Muslim Arabs adamantly oppose Bush. But an increase in Arab-American support for Kerry could spell a decrease in Jewish support for him.

One of the complaints against Kerry is that he has been relatively silent regarding his position on the Middle East, as he must beware of making comments that will alienate either Jewish or Arab potential supporters. Indeed, shortly after the Arab-American community endorsed Kerry, Jewish Republicans pounced on the move as proof that he has not shown sufficient support for Israel.

The Republican Jewish Coalition released a statement yesterday saying, "You can judge political candidates by their friends."

Nonetheless, Bush's position on issues that affect Arabs will not necessarily be the determining factor in how Arab Americans vote. "People don't vote only on the issues close to their community," said Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine. "There are many Arab Americans who like Bush's economic policy and who were not affected by the Patriot Act."

Poll results back up Asali's comments. The survey commissioned by Zogby shows that when Arab Americans are asked what the most important issue is for them when they choose a president, most mention the economy. Questions about foreign policy arouse great interest, but they don't make it to the top of the list.