Big hitters on both sides court the small Jewish swing vote

For such a small segment of the electorate, Jewish swing voters in this country are sure getting a lot of attention these days.

President Bush’s re-election team has developed a fast, efficient operation aimed at a select segment of Jewish voters in key states and Jewish campaign contributors nationwide.

Jewish Democrats are getting their act together to hold the line against Republican gains with pro-Israel voters. Their emerging strategy: to fend off claims the GOP has become the most pro-Israel party and then hit back with their huge advantage on domestic policy.

The numbers of voters actually in play in this fight are small, but the stakes are high as pollsters point to another tight presidential election.

Nationally, polls indicate that about 90 percent of the presidential vote is already locked up for either Bush or Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), with close to an even split. The remaining sliver of the electorate — University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato estimated it could be only 8 percent of those likely to vote — will decide the outcome on election day, Nov. 2.

The Jewish community, with its acute interest in protecting a besieged Israel, may have a higher proportion of swing voters, although the partisan breakdown of the Jewish “committeds” is different, with the Democrats enjoying a big advantage.

An informal survey of Democratic and Republican activists this week suggested that the Jewish swing vote could be as high as 20 percent.

The president got 19 percent of the Jewish vote in 2000; that means that at best, he is unlikely to go above 40 percent this year. Most analysts, however, including many Republicans, say a likelier number is in the 30 percent to 35 percent range.

But an increase from 19 percent to 30 percent, while putting Bush significantly below the numbers won by President Reagan in 1980, is far from insignificant.

Jews are heavily concentrated in a few key states where the vote is expected to be close. That’s why both parties are desperately focusing their Jewish outreach in Florida, where even a modest Jewish shift could tip the balance in the state that decided the last presidential contest — or at least gave the Supreme Court a chance to decide it.

Secondly, there’s the money factor.

Nobody has precise numbers, but there’s a broad consensus that the Republican Party and the Bush campaign are picking up new Jewish contributors, adding to the GOP financial advantage and, more importantly, chipping away at the financial foundation of the Democratic Party.

Part of this is the natural result of the GOP’s recent domination of Congress and the White House and the advantages of incumbency. And part of it is the perception that the president has been staunchly supportive of Israel’s war on terror, which he links to our own.

But the Democrats aren’t exactly helpless.

Jewish swing voters, most experts agree, tend to be “security hawks” on Mideast matters, and tend to be the most active in Jewish political and communal affairs.

They worry a lot about Israel, and they are responsive to GOP charges that the Democrats want to pressure Israel into risky agreements. But many of these coveted swing voters also care deeply about a range of domestic issues — and on these, they are overwhelmingly in the Democratic camp.

Hence the emerging Jewish Democratic strategy: Stop the bleeding on Israel, and then hammer the Republicans on domestic issues.

The Democrats can’t out-Israel Bush, who has been unusually supportive of a hard-line Israeli leader. Nor can they paper over the fact, adroitly exploited by the Republicans, that some of the lawmakers most hostile to the pro-Israel cause are Democrats.

But they can work to neutralize the issue by emphasizing their party’s long record of support for Israel and by pointing out that the Republicans, too, have their share of politicians who are hostile to the Jewish state.

The Democrats can’t compete with Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the House majority leader, for the support of Jewish right-wingers.

But they don’t have to. Most American Jews are centrists, not supporters of the not-one-inch crowd DeLay courts. The pro-settlements positions of DeLay and other Christian right leaders may score points with Jewish right-wingers who are unlikely to vote Democratic in any event, but won’t impress Jewish swing voters.

The Democrats have to shun the easy answers of the political left on Mideast questions, but that doesn’t mean they need to buy into the easy answers of the right.

Then, when they have solidified their pro-Israel bona fides, they can turn to the domestic issues such as civil rights, economic justice, abortion rights and church-state separation, where they still have a big advantage with Jewish voters.

That is the emerging strategy of House Democratic leaders, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-S.F.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who are waging an aggressive campaign to pitch their party’s Mideast positions while making the case that the GOP is far out of step with most Jews domestically.

The Democrats can maximize their share of the Jewish swing vote and hold the line against Republican gains — but only if they can neutralize the charge that only the Republicans can save Israel from another Oslo mistake.