Floridas Jews at eye of presidential storm

tamarac, fla. | A cold fear is blowing through south Florida’s strip malls, wilted palms and retirement homes, fear of another agonizingly close election fraught with charges and countercharges of vote theft.

And standing at the nexus of this storm, for reasons having as much to do with geography as with politics, is the region’s Jewish community.

Florida’s Jewish vote is emerging as crucial to the 2004 presidential contest, and both campaigns are bringing out their top guns to sway the region’s 700,000 Jews, some 4 percent of the state’s total population.

“The difference between John Kerry winning by four points or two points or even closer is the turnout here in Broward and Palm Beach counties,” Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) told a packed hall in a retirement community here over the weekend.

Waving his arm at an alignment of the party’s Jewish superstars on the stage behind him, Wexler told his constituents: “It shows how much they care about the Jewish community here in south Florida.”

Republicans agree: The stakes are high in Florida, and the Jewish vote could be key.

“The percentage of Jewish voters is growing, and they vote more often,” said Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the Republican Party in Palm Beach county, one of three heavily Jewish counties targeted by the Democratic blitz this weekend.

Democrats brought in best-selling writer and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, erstwhile presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and a raft of other Jewish leading lights.

After the event at the Kings Point retirement campus in Tamarac, the group split up and attended events at synagogues and Jewish Community Centers throughout the state.

The Republicans haven’t been slacking, either. Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani spoke at a Boca Raton synagogue recently, and his predecessor, Ed Koch, was slated to appear at events in Boca Raton and Miami, surrounded by Republican Jewish legislators and mayors.

A key to the Republicans’ aggressive strategy with Jews in the state is to bring in figures like Giuliani and Koch — who don’t share much in common with Bush on domestic issues, but who say he is the only candidate capable of defending Israel and handling the threat of terrorism.

Locally, one Republican trophy has been Miami Beach Mayor Ron Dermer, a Democrat who has endorsed Bush because of his Israel policies.

There are two reasons for the focus on the Jewish community.

First, the Jewish population is more than a thousand times the 537 votes that handed Florida and the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000. In that election, less than 20 percent of Jewish voters nationwide opted for Bush; Republicans are believed to have made inroads since then because of Bush’s unprecedented closeness to Israel’s Sharon government.

Second, out of 67 Florida counties, 15 are planning to use touch-screen voting machines for the first time in a presidential election.

The fears of Republican inroads into the Jewish community that drive such rhetoric are justified, said Dinerstein, the Palm Beach Republican Party chairman. He listed a litany of local Jewish Republican politicians, and said low Jewish support for Bush in 2000 was an anomaly, that Jews couldn’t resist voting for a ticket with Lieberman’s name.

He predicted that as many as 40 percent of Jewish voters in Florida would go to Bush this election.

Interviews with voters suggested that support for Bush and Kerry among Florida’s Jews was divided between those who said Israel was their priority and those who said domestic issues mattered more. Bush supporters placed Israel higher; those who said the economy worried them were likelier to vote for Kerry.

Ron Kampeas

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