New Hampshire Jews lean toward Dean

manchester, n.h. | In an empty room where a small party for the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union is about to be held, Hilda Fleisher stands out.

It may be her bright pink turtleneck sweater, or the fact that the 72-year-old is wearing braces on her lower teeth. Or it may be the small pin that reads “Dean for America” on the collar of her fleece vest.

When asked why she is supporting Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor, Fleisher’s remark stands out, too. “I just sorta oozed into it,” she says.

Fleisher, a lawyer and art collector in Manchester, says she did not choose to support Dean because he spent a night at her house, although he did.

“He cleaned the bathroom,” Fleisher recalls of her houseguest. “He made his bed.”

The reason she chose Dean, the front-runner in New Hampshire polls, is that she thinks he can defeat President Bush next year, and that’s her top priority.

Tough words from a former Republican.

New Hampshire Jews look very different in real life from the way they do on paper. While the Jewish community of New Hampshire makes up proportionately one of the largest Jewish factions of registered Republicans in the country, the Jews here actually tend to vote Democratic in national races.

This trend appears likely to intensify this election season. There is a large number of Jews here who are frustrated with President Bush and are seeking new leadership.

People in this state understand the influence they have over the national agenda by hosting the country’s first primary, which this election season is set for Jan. 27.

Like their non-Jewish neighbors, many Jews here reach out to the candidates, inviting them to forums and seeking face time with them in order to lend their support and boost their voting numbers.

Many of them remain undecided, uninterested in the nine Democratic hopefuls who make frequent stops to their schools, synagogues, shopping centers and neighbors’ homes, even as they express a strong desire to replace Bush.

The only Democratic candidate who seems to have sparked any interest among Jews here is Dean, who earned the endorsement of former Vice President Al Gore on Tuesday, Dec. 9. That’s in keeping with polls of voters up and down the state.

According to the latest state polls, conducted last month by the American Research Group, Dean has 38 percent support in New Hampshire, with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) second with 17 percent. No other candidate breaks double digits. Twenty-one percent of those surveyed said they were undecided.

Many in the Jewish community here say that Jews do not vote as a bloc and do not participate in campaign events and forums specifically as members of the Jewish community.

Instead, they say, the Jews here, numbering 10,000 — less than 1 percent of the state’s total population of 1.2 million — are committed to their role as voters in the nation’s first primary.

For many, the first step will be changing their registration.

David Stahl, a Manchester political observer who has been active in the Jewish community, says Jews in New Hampshire traditionally have registered as Republicans in order to have greater influence on elections for state and national offices.

Stahl, 77, changed his own registration last month to independent so he could participate in the Democratic primary. In New Hampshire, registered independents can vote in either primary.

It was only the second time in his life that he did that.

Still, there are some Republicans who intend to stick with their party.

Mark Gilman, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Manchester, describes his politics on the Middle East as “somewhere to the right of Ariel Sharon.”

He says that he is seeing more young New Hampshire Jews embrace the Republican Party and Bush’s stance on Israel.

“A lot of my social peers applaud his guts to try and do what he’s doing,” said Gilman,

Gilman said many of the Jewish Democrats backing candidates either are ambivalent on Israel or believe their candidate will take a more pro-Israel stand later on in the campaign season.