Could Jews decide close presidential contest

washington | Now that it’s down to John Kerry versus George W. Bush, Jews in swing states could decide the presidential election.

“Anything that moves a few hundred or a few thousand voters one way or another in any state can cause a seismic shift,” said John Zogby, a pollster who says the closeness of this election is leading opinion-gatherers to focus more than ever on small groups like Jews.

The fight will mirror the larger battle for the election, where Kerry will emphasize domestic issues and President Bush will stress his foreign policy and security record.

Among Jews, Democratic strategists say they will stress health care, the economy and the proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Republicans say they will stress Bush’s strong pro-Israel record and his war against terrorism.

Jews still lean strongly Democratic, pollsters say, but even small shifts could change history.

“If instead of 72 percent of the Jewish vote Kerry were to get 69 percent, it’s not many votes, but it could have an impact in Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona,” Zogby said — all states that were won by tiny margins in the 2000 election.

Florida’s contested electoral votes in that election ultimately threw the national race to Bush, even though Al Gore got the plurality of the national vote.

Kerry, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, swept nine of 10 states in this week’s Super Tuesday primaries, all but clinching the Democratic nomination.

Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), Kerry’s only serious rival, announced his withdrawal from the race Wednesday, March 3. Edwards did not win any primaries Tuesday, March 2.

Jewish activists in both parties already are targeting swing communities.

“There’s probably going to be about 10 real battleground states and in a number of those places there’s a large Jewish community,” said Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, making note of Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Missouri.

The Republic Jewish Coalition has held a number of events in Florida recently to bolster support.

Marc Racicot, the former Montana governor who chairs the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, attended some of those events in the state over the weekend. Racicot said he was optimistic that Bush would do better than the 19 percent he earned from Jews in 2000, because of the president’s strong pro-Israel record.

“We understand they have been inclined to support Democrats,” Racicot said of Jewish voters. “But we feel the president’s policies and his values in regards to the Middle East lead to the possibility to be much more successful in the Jewish community — not just in Florida but around the country.”

Bring it on, say the Democrats.

“Things have not looked as good for Democrats in the Jewish community for a number of years,” said Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Kerry’s strength among Jews was reflected in exit polls on Super Tuesday, where he polled better among Jews than among non-Jews in four out of five states with reliable Jewish exit poll data.

Forman said his party would emphasize what all pro-Israel activists agree is Kerry’s exemplary voting record in 19 years in the Senate.

“It’s good to be a Jewish Democrat today,” Forman said Wednesday.

Forman suggested that the Democrats’ strategy would be first to say that Bush and Kerry were equals on Israel, “and then we pivot to all the major domestic issues.”

“They’re on the wrong side of the community on the fiscal mess, with its dire implications for social service programs, on forfeiture of stewardship of the environment, on destroying the wall separating church from state, on choice, in energy, on nuclear proliferation — we can go on and on and on,” Forman said.

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.