The new GOP pragmatism &mdash think long-term on Jewish support

If you’re a Jewish Democrat, you have to be heartened by last week’s National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) poll of Jewish voters, which suggested that years of feverish outreach by the Republicans have produced paltry results.

But if you’re a Jewish Republican ready for the national convention in New York, you’re probably not too worried — mostly because you know the real GOP strategy.

Hope may spring eternal, but this year the Republicans are bringing a solid pragmatism into their Jewish outreach. Glowing predictions about a Jewish stampede to their side have been tempered by political reality and a realistic belief that in 2004, even a modest shift in Jewish votes could prove decisive.

Party strategists have a practical, attainable plan: targeting a narrow segment where President Bush’s strong support for Israel is the overarching issue, and focusing on a handful of states where the Jewish vote could actually make a difference.

And while the results will probably be a disappointment to those who perennially predict a partisan sea change, they may boost the party’s long-term goals for the Jewish electorate — and for pro-Israel campaign contributors.

Last week’s NJDC poll reveals the continuing strength of the Democrats with Jewish votes — but also some areas of opportunity that the Republicans are working hard to exploit.

In the survey, John Kerry wins the Jewish vote by an overwhelming 75 to 22 percent margin; when Jewish voters are asked about specific issues, they indicate a big preference for Kerry on a range of domestic issues.

But on Israel, Kerry slips to 66 percent support — still a winning percentage, but less than he gets on issues such as the economy, Medicare and Social Security.

That suggests both the theme of this year’s Jewish Republican outreach and the target: Israel policy, and the Jews for whom that is the supreme issue.

The NJDC poll identifies these Jews as a minority — heavily skewed but not limited to the observant side of the religious spectrum — but they’re hardly insignificant. Florida has a disproportionate number of them, which is why Jewish Republican leaders have been flocking to the state like migrating birds. Every indication is that Florida could play the same critical role it played in 2000, when the margin in the contested presidential tally was less than 600 votes — about the size of a large Jewish retirement home.

Jewish single-issue voters could also be important in the swing states of Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, if the Nov. 2 tally is close enough.

Sure, the Republicans would like to see a dramatic jump in the national Jewish vote, but they know that’s unlikely. Many Jews who support a more active Mideast peace process aren’t impressed with the President’s buddy-buddy relationship with Ariel Sharon; many others, while approving of Bush’s Mideast actions, won’t vote Republican because of his even stronger allegiance to the religious right and his party’s conservative domestic agenda.

But in 2004, the mass of Jewish voters probably won’t be all

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that important anyway, since the states with the biggest Jewish populations — New York and California — aren’t in play.

Hence the GOP strategy: Focus money and energy on the key states, using respected Jewish surrogates such as Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), rising Jewish GOP stars, as spokesmen. Emphasize the two issues these voters care about the most: Israel and fighting terrorism. Work to ensure high turnout.

The 2004 election, with the tiny pool of swing voters, is shaping up as an exercise in micro-targeting, and the Jewish electorate is part of that process.

The campaign will also appeal heavily to top Jewish leaders. Many are more conservative than their constituents and more likely to emphasize Israel above all other issues. Some have made it clear they think it’s critically important to reward Bush at the polls for his steadfast support for an embattled Jewish state.

All of that will be spotlighted at next week’s Republican convention, where swarms of Jewish machers and contributors will get the full treatment — just as they got at last month’s Democratic confab in Boston.

The President has a part to play in this drama, as well: avoiding any confrontation with the Israeli government in the remaining 10 weeks of the campaign. That was reportedly one factor in this week’s decision to reverse policy on settlement construction.

There’s another long-term GOP goal: Jewish campaign money.

Jewish voters haven’t been moving to the GOP side in droves, but the party and individual candidates have made significant inroads among political contributors, and especially those whose checkbooks are guided by the Israel issue. Party leaders hope a strong 2004 campaign based on President Bush’s support for Israel will produce financial dividends for years to come.

That helps the Republicans — and hurts the Democrats, for whom Jewish money has always been critical.

The Republicans are thinking long term. A small but geographically significant shift of Jewish voters on Nov. 2, a continued movement of Jewish money in their direction and a growing comfort level with some Republican candidates such as Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich, New York Gov. George Pataki and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani are the real goals.

And despite the protests of the Democrats, they’re realistic ones.

James Besser is a Washington correspondent for Jewish newspapers across the country.