Republicans to emphasize unity in outreach to Jews

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WASHINGTON — Jewish delegates attending next week's Republican National Convention in Philadelphia may have to scramble from one event to another if they want to catch all the outreach to Jews.

The Republican Party is interested in being more inclusive, says Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, and is actively reaching out to the Jewish community.

Brooks' group, which in the past has co-sponsored events with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is branching out on its own this year, hosting three events that will feature prominent Republican candidates, party leaders and members of Congress.

AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, instead is teaming with the United Jewish Communities for its own events, including one on Sunday that overlaps with the RJC event.

The American Jewish Committee has slated its own series of programs.

In contrast to past Republican conventions, when delegates and party leaders feuded over divisive issues such as abortion and school prayer, this convention is being touted as a unifying event for Republicans of all stripes.

The Republican platform, which will not be released until next week, is expected to express support for Israel, but will also likely include the issues promoted by religious conservatives that have alienated Jewish voters in previous years.

Republicans this time around are focusing on their candidate, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, and on such issues as education and foreign policy.

On social issues, Brooks said, the party will strive to portray itself as a big tent that can appeal to socially moderate Jews.

For decades, Republicans have faced an uphill battle drawing Jewish support. Republican presidential candidates typically receive around 15 to 20 percent of the Jewish vote.

President Reagan received one of the highest percentages in 1980, with 39 percent. President Bush received one of the lowest in 1992, garnering only 11 percent in his race against Bill Clinton and H. Ross Perot.

Bush is working very hard for the Jewish vote and is making inroads, according to Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer

There is "no one issue that makes Jews vote Democratic," Fleischer said, adding that Bush has "a sensitivity to Jewish concerns."

When asked about potentially divisive social issues, Fleischer said the Texas governor works to be inclusive and would focus on those areas that unite voters.

Indeed, Jewish Republicans are hoping that Bush may be the one to break the Democratic lock on Jewish voters.

Speaking at the AIPAC conference in Washington in May, Bush reiterated his support for Israel, promised to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and voiced support for the peace process.

It is not clear what impact his choice of Dick Cheney for vice president will have among Jewish voters. As secretary of defense under George Bush, Cheney was part of an administration that waged the Persian Gulf War against Iraq as that Arab nation rained Scud missiles down on Israel — a positive for many Jews.

That same administration, however, was seen by many American Jews as antagonistic toward Israel, especially concerning the Jewish state's settlement policies on the West Bank.

Cheney's conservative record on domestic issues could also alienate Jews, say analysts, even as Bush himself has been challenged on domestic issues.

Jewish groups have taken Bush to task for his stand on church-state issues, including his support for the Ten Commandments in schools and government buildings, and for student-led prayers before high school football games in Texas.

Most recently, Bush was criticized for proclaiming June 10 as "Jesus Day" in Texas.

Republican supporters, however, dismiss those concerns as peripheral.

"Bush is a different kind of Republican," Brooks said, citing Bush's record on education reform as an issue that will appeal to Jewish voters.

In reaching out to Jewish Republicans, the RJC events at the convention will feature Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and some prominent Republican governors.

The AIPAC-UJC event will feature some of the same high-level Republicans.

AIPAC expects 800 local and national AIPAC members to attend the convention.

Despite the hint of rivalry between the RJC and AIPAC — given the separate, but overlapping events — both groups said there was no problem or animosity.

"I think the RJC decided it was in their best interests to do their own event," Kenneth Bricker, AIPAC's spokesman, said. "I suspect that most folks will attend both events."

Brooks said the convention was a unique opportunity for his organization to showcase itself and that the RJC wanted to host its own event because it has a broad-based agenda and does not– unlike AIPAC — focus solely on Israel-related issues.

For its part, the AJCommittee said it will use the convention as an opportunity to unite with ethnic and religious coalitions on such public policy concerns as immigration, hate crimes and civil rights.

The organization plans to host five events in conjunction with the convention.