(KRT) A month after 4,500 fellow Jews went wild for President Bush in a Washington ballroom, Steve Rabinowitz still sounds peeved about the spectacle.
He didn't like the shouts of "four more years." He didn't like the 24 standing ovations. And, as a Democratic strategist, what he dislikes most is the widely shared belief that Bush could rack up a sizable Jewish vote in November perhaps enough to swing a closely contested state such as Pennsylvania, Florida or Ohio.
"Every four years, my Republican friends say that this will be the election when the Jews go Republican, and, every time, the election results prove them wrong," he said the other day. "They're like the boy who cried wolf. It makes me crazy. You want to say, 'Little boy, there's no wolf!' Enough already!"
But this year, Rabinowitz and the Democrats could be wrong. And it's not just the Bush Republicans who are saying that.
Bush was feted in that Washington ballroom last month for his hawkish pro-Israel policies, and for his overthrow of the Iraqi dictator who had long represented a threat to Israel. For those reasons alone, many political observers insist that John Kerry and the Democrats should be worried about losing a hefty share of the Jewish vote.
Jews make up only 4 percent of the electorate, but they're heavily concentrated in big states where, in many cases, Bush and Kerry are deadlocked. And even though Jews, as predominantly liberal-leaning voters, tend to reject Republican candidates Bush won only 19 percent of the Jewish vote last time Bush's strategists know that if they can hike their share to 30 percent or more, it could spell the difference between victory and defeat in another photo-finish election.
"The Democrats should absolutely be concerned, and I have given that message to the Kerry people," said Jack Rosen, a Democrat and president of the nonpartisan American Jewish Congress. He said that Bush has shown "guts" and "backbone" in his staunch support for Israel and that could resonate with Jewish voters who are primarily concerned about Israel's survival and the war on terrorism. Those voters may have become more numerous since Sept. 11, 2001.
ONLY NEEDS ENOUGH TO TIP SCALES
Most Jewish voters don't focus solely on Israel, but the GOP is focused on those who do. Ken Goldstein, a political analyst in Wisconsin who tracks the Jewish vote, said, "Bush doesn't necessarily need a huge movement of Jews. We're living in a political environment where small margins in only a few places can make a difference. This is about how Jews vote in Miami and Boca Raton, in the Cleveland suburbs, and in the Philadelphia suburbs."
Susan MacManus, a Florida political analyst and former state elections commissioner, predicted that Bush could garner far more than 30 percent of the state's Jewish voters in November, "and that's a concern to Democrats here right now. Any losses from their base would be terrible for them. The Jewish voters here are older (than the national average), and concern for Israel may be higher among older voters."
Bush is stressing those security concerns, declaring that the United States and Israel are joined in the fight against terrorists while Democrats are essentially saying that Kerry would be just as tough abroad, but a lot better than Bush on the domestic staples that have always resonated with Jews (separation of church and state, social justice, individual rights).
And there's the dilemma. David Harris, who directs another nonpartisan group, the American Jewish Committee, said: "Many Jews are engaged in an internal tug of war. They want to applaud the President's response to global terrorism, but they still have their traditional domestic concerns. That's why there's such fierce competition right now between the parties."
One problem is that nobody has decent as in recent poll numbers. The last survey was released in January, when Harris' group found that 31 percent of Jews would vote for Bush but that was back when Kerry was a blip in the polls and seemingly poised for a quick exit. Also, 35 percent of Jews voted for GOP candidates in the last round of congressional elections but that was 19 months ago.
Independent [ and Arab - editor] pollster John Zogby does not have any numbers, but he believes that a 30 percent Jewish vote for Bush would be "a stretch." Why? Because the vast majority of Jews are too liberal (on issues such as same-sex marriage, for example) to embrace an ideologically conservative president, and too skeptical about Ariel Sharon's hard-line posture to make Israel a litmus test at the ballot box.
But what about the big Jewish audience that treated Bush like a rock star at the May event hosted by Washington's top pro-Israel lobbying group? Democratic strategist Rabinowitz said the reception did not really mean anything: "America's Jewish leadership just likes to suck up to power. If there are any single-issue Jewish voters, they were all in that room.
"Once Kerry reaches the threshold of reassuring people that he's good on Israel, then the conversation with Jewish voters pivots to domestic issues which is where Kerry cleans Bush's clock."
The counter-spin comes from Matt Brooks, who has been talking up the prospects of GOP gains among Jews since he became director of the Republican Jewish Coalition in 1990. He said, "We're in a life-or-death situation, the same as Israel has been facing every time we get on a plane, every time the alert status is raised. And that should remind us how important it is to pick a vital leader."
THE INTERNET FACTOR
And he's sending out e-mails that paint Kerry as a flip-flopper. It's a matter of record that, in 2003, Kerry condemned Israel's security fence as "a barrier to peace," only to reverse himself this year; and that after he angered Jewish leaders by declaring in a speech that he would consider ex-President Jimmy Carter as a Middle East envoy (some view Carter as pro-Arab), he renounced the idea and blamed it on his speechwriters.
"Those two incidents have had a long life span," said Harris, the Jewish leader, "because of the Internet. With Kerry, there's still a dating process going on."
Jewish Democrats concede that, in some cases, Bush has been bold; in April, he rejected the Palestinian refugee claim of a "right of return" to Israel, and that's a historic shift in U.S. policy. But they are telling the fence-sitters in their midst that Bush's record on Israel doesn't match the hype.
Sam Tenenbaum, a Jewish Democratic fund-raiser in South Carolina, cited the Bush family's long-standing ties to Saudi Arabia's ruling family: "Has Bush forced the Saudis to get tough with the schools run by Islamic extremists? The schools that are teaching the children to hate Jews? Bush hasn't dealt with that. I bring that up at every meeting I go to."
And maybe history will repeat itself. In 1996, Republicans talked up their Jewish vote by touting "opportunities for realignment" and Bob Dole got 16 percent. In 1992, they promised "an incremental shift" and the senior George Bush got 11 percent. If this race stays tight and seems poised to hinge on a few thousand votes in a big swing state, Rabinowitz and the Democrats will surely hope that the boy has cried wolf again.