(KRT) BOCA RATON, Fla. Greeted by cries of "Shalom!" and "We love you, Bill!" former President Bill Clinton plunged into the political tussle for South Florida's Jewish voters yesterday, one of several prominent visitors intent on tipping the balance of a very close presidential election.
The final scramble for voter support in Florida, the biggest swing state, has drawn candidates and their surrogates almost daily. In this feverish environment, every voter is considered crucial. And in South Florida, Jewish voters took center stage on Tuesday.
While Clinton vouched for Democratic candidate John Kerry at the B'Nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton, Republican organizers brought in former New York Mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat, to tout President Bush at a rally at Boca Pointe.
Clinton, a major new force on the campaign trail, brought a charismatic presence, an emotional appeal to fervent Democrats and a knack for connecting with wavering voters. His mission on Tuesday was to persuade concerned Jewish voters that Kerry would remain a stout ally of Israel.
The former president made a dramatic entrance from the back of the temple, walking slowly and looking a bit wan, like a man who had undergone major surgery just seven weeks ago.
After an introduction by Kerry's brother, Cameron Kerry, who talked about his own conversion to Judaism, Clinton soaked up the crowd's adoration and stepped to a podium. He began in a low voice, characteristically cracking, which brought a crowd of 1,200 to a respectful hush.
"There is no doubt in my mind that the security of Israel, including its qualitative military superiority, would be unshaken if he (Kerry) were president. You can rely on it, you can take it to the bank," Clinton assured the crowd, sparking a burst of appreciative applause.
"There's also no doubt in my mind that if the newly elected government of Israel finds a partner for peace and decides to go forward, he will be involved in a way that is supportive and in a way that never compromises the defense or the security of Israel."
Clinton praised Israel's decision, approved by its parliament on Tuesday, to remove Israeli settlements from Gaza.
His down-home speech, which focused on U.S. policy in the Middle East, sealed at least one vote for Kerry.
"It reinforced my belief that John Kerry will be extremely supportive of Israel. I think I made my decision as to who I will vote for as of today," said Brad Cohen, 51, of Delray Beach. "I was still undecided until I came here today, and this helped make the decision for me."
Bush backers questioned whether Clinton's visit will sway many voters. "People are not so foolish as to say, `I'll vote for Kerry because of Bill Clinton,'" said Peter Lebowitz, president of the Boca Pointe Republican Outreach, "They like him and love him and may want to vote for him again, but he's not running. John Kerry is running."
A recent poll by the American Jewish Committee indicated that Bush a staunch defender of the conservative Israeli government has gained support from Jewish Americans since he received only 19 percent of the Jewish vote in 2000. The September poll of 1,000 Jewish-Americans found 69 percent favored Kerry and 24 percent favored Bush.
"Bill Clinton's failed policies are part of the reason Israel faces the problems it has," said Edward Kone, a Parkland attorney who came to protest Clinton's appearance. "I like President Bush's policy of isolating (Palestinian leader) Yasser Arafat and not dealing with terrorists."
While bringing the prestige of a former popular president to the campaign trail, Clinton is trying to rev up voter turnout among Democratic loyalists.
"They (Bush campaign monitors) are going to ask every Democrat whether they can prove they are a legal voter and hope some people get tired of standing in line. That's what this is about, you know," Clinton said. " I don't know, maybe somebody should check all of them."
Many in the crowd acknowledged that turnout has become more important than persuading the relatively few remaining undecided voters.
"I don't think Clinton can say much at this point or Kerry for that matter to change the minds of voters," said Steve Lippman, 46, of Boca Raton. "I think most people have made up their minds. This just kind of creates a feeling in the air of momentum, just like in sports."