Can GOP ticket overcome rightist platform Kemp seen as ally on Jewish causes

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

SAN DIEGO — As a congressman, he gave hope to desperate refuseniks struggling to gain their freedom.

As a senior Republican leader, he defended Israel when many were attacking the Jewish state's policies. As a Cabinet official in the Bush administration, he found new Jewish admirers as he fought to improve America's poorest cities.

Now, Republican Jews hope that their favorite son, Jack Kemp, can help propel the GOP back into the White House.

The excitement Bob Dole's new running mate has breathed into the Republican Party's rank and file was clearly evident this week as Jewish delegates converged on San Diego for the Republican National Convention. Kemp brought down the house at a Jewish-sponsored reception Sunday night just one day after being tapped to join the Republican ticket. It was one of Kemp's first public appearances after arriving with presidential nominee Dole.

Kemp had disappointed many Republican Jews when he decided last year not to seek the presidential nomination.

With the former professional football player now on the ticket, the usually festive kickoff celebrations turned jubilant in this oceanside city.

Flanked by his wife, Joanne, Kemp told more than 500 cheering Jewish activists at a local restaurant that was koshered especially for the event that he and his wife "will never forget who was there when the going was tough."

"Tonight with you, we feel like mishpachah [family]," Kemp said, repeating a line he uses frequently when addressing Jewish audiences.

A lone activist shouted back: "You are!" to the man who grew up in a largely Jewish Los Angeles neighborhood of Fairfax.

Best known for his embrace of supply-side economics, Kemp, 61, has garnered Jewish support since he began his political career in the House of Representatives in 1970. Jewish Republicans are now hoping Kemp will reach beyond the party's traditional base to independent and Jewish voters by matching his tax-cutting ideology with his compassion for immigrants, the poor and minorities.

His support for affirmative action without racial quotas, his solid pro-Israel record and his personal involvement in the Soviet Jewry movement, they say, all translate into Jewish votes for the Dole-Kemp ticket in November. Whether, in the minds of Jewish voters, these issues can trump his support for school prayer and for banning abortions has yet to be seen.

Kemp serves on the board of the Center for Jewish and Christian Values, which was founded by the politically conservative Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), for one, does not believe these positions will affect Kemp's standing in the Jewish community.

"Kemp is pro-life, but he does not wear it on his sleeve," the senator said in an interview at the Jewish reception, which was cosponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based National Jewish Coalition and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.

"He supports school prayer, but does not pursue it," Specter said. "These positions will not translate into government action in a Dole-Kemp administration."

Frequently at odds with his own party on immigration and other social issues, Kemp's moderate positions in these areas date back to his early support for Soviet Jews. Kemp is "one of the true giants of the Soviet Jewry advocacy movement," said Mark Levin, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, one of many Jewish organizations to honor Kemp for his efforts.

Just last year, HIAS presented him with its Liberty Award, lauding his contributions to furthering peace and freedom.

During his nine terms as a congressman from Buffalo, N.Y., Kemp traveled frequently to the former Soviet Union, often meeting with refuseniks and pushing the Communist regime to allow emigration.

In 1982, Kemp, who served as co-chair of the Congressional Coalition for Soviet Jews, teamed up with Dole to stage a mock wedding ceremony at the Capitol building to pressure Soviet authorities to release the wife of a refusenik living in the United States.

At the time Edward Lozansky had been struggling for six years to bring his wife, Tatiana, to the United States.

Lozansky was a Republican activist tied to both Dole, who served as his best man at the mock ceremony, and Kemp, who served as a witness.

"Without those two guys, I don't know if we ever would have seen each other," Lozansky said of himself and his wife in a telephone interview this week from his Washington office.

Tatiana received permission to leave the Soviet Union a month after the Dole-Kemp event. She became a U.S. citizen in 1985, and Dole and Kemp were both on hand to congratulate her during an emotional ceremony.

Lozansky recalled making a speech saying it would be tough if Dole and Kemp both ran for president because he and his wife would have a difficult time deciding whom to support.

"We love both of you," he recalled saying at the time, "and we would like you both to be on the same ticket."

With his wish now true, Lozansky, who now heads a consulting firm to promote American-Russian relations, said he plans to launch a drive to win support for the Dole-Kemp ticket among Soviet Jewish emigres in the United States.

Kemp also gets high marks for his pro-Israel record, which is so strong that some Jewish Republicans skeptical of Dole's mixed relations with the Jewish state now plan to stay with the ticket.

"People who were leaving the party over Israel will now stay," said Rosalie Zalis, a senior policy adviser to California Gov. Pete Wilson. Zalis said she had met seven couples at a Shabbat dinner over the weekend who had planned to cross party lines because of their concern over Dole's record on Israel.

But after Dole tapped Kemp to be his running mate, Zalis said, "six have already committed to come back."

Dole was on the receiving end of Kemp's ire when the then-Senate majority leader slammed Israel for the 1988 kidnapping of Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, leader of the fundamentalist Hezbollah movement.

A year later, when Col. William Higgins, an American soldier in Lebanon, was killed, presumably in retaliation for Obeid's abduction, Dole took the Senate floor, saying: "Perhaps a little more responsibility on the part of the Israelis one of these days would be refreshing."

Kemp, then secretary of housing and urban development in the Bush administration, fired back at Dole.

Dole should stop this "`blame Israel first' mentality," he was quoted as saying at the time.

And when the rest of the world slammed Israel for bombing Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, Kemp praised the Jewish state. He also was among the few voices in U.S. government to defend Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The campaign was "not only inevitable but justified," he said at the time.

Today Kemp continues to strongly support Israel.

Israel's security "is not a Republican cause. It's an American cause," Kemp said Sunday night.

He informed the assembled audience that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he called a longtime friend, had called to wish him "mazel tov."

"With Bibi as prime minister of Israel and Bob Dole and Jack Kemp in the U.S., this is going to be a really exciting time for the world and our nation," Kemp said to rousing cheers.

Republicans say Kemp signifies Jewish votes for the GOP ticket. But Democrats, who were prepared to pounce on whomever Dole chose as his running mate, say there is nothing the Republicans can do to increase Jewish support.

"Bob Dole could have picked [Zionist leader Theodor] Herzl and he would lose in the Jewish community," said Ira Forman, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Jewish Democratic Council.

"This might help Bob Dole squeeze some more money out of the Jews on his finance committee, but it won't get him one more Jewish vote."

But Zalis argues that Kemp's addition to the ticket will not only "bring Jewish Republicans home," but could also force so-called Reagan Democrats to consider the Republican party once again.

Both Republicans and Democrats agree that support for Israel is not enough to win Jewish support in November.

Positions on domestic economic and social issues could prove even more critical.

Jewish activists concerned about Republican-led cuts in welfare and immigration assistance say they are hopeful that Kemp, a self-described "bleeding-heart conservative," would be a voice for their concerns.

For Jewish Republicans, Kemp's selection has renewed hopes that Dole can conquer Clinton's commanding lead.

"This has got to be the Democrats' worst nightmare," said Matt Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition and an unabashed Kemp backer.

"The Democrats won't know how to campaign against a man who has slept in public housing complexes."