The decades-long allegiance of Jewish voters to the Democratic Party is under unprecedented stress, threatened by a combination of changing demographics and the concerted Republican effort to depict President Barack Obama as unfriendly to Israel.
Nowhere are the stakes higher than South Florida, home to 490,000 Jews who make up a voting bloc powerful enough to influence national elections. Though a small percentage of the overall population, Jews vote at a higher rate than virtually every other slice of the electorate.
More than three-quarters of Jewish voters went for Obama in 2008. If Republicans are even moderately successful in eroding that support and Democrats can't staunch the leakage, it could help push the state's 29 electoral votes — more than 10 percent of the 270 needed to win the presidency — away from Obama and into the Republican column this year.
Leading local Republicans say capturing a bigger chunk than ever of the Florida's Jewish vote is within their reach. "Obama's lost a lot of the Jewish support," said Jeff Rubinoff, president of the Davie-Cooper City Republican Club. "A lot more people are starting to come over. They're beginning to recognize Obama's anti-Israel stance."
Even some Democrats concede that support for the president has softened among the state's Jews, perhaps to a critical degree.
"Florida is up for grabs right now. The Jewish population is not overly enthused by Obama," said Andre Fladell, a longtime Jewish Democratic activist in Delray Beach. "If that vote becomes unenthusiastic, the election goes the other way."
Kleig lights will shine on the parties' competing efforts to court American Jewish voters starting Sunday in Washington when Obama speaks to the big-pro Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears at AIPAC on Monday.
On Tuesday, the mic at AIPAC goes to rival Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.
Also scheduled this week: a White House sit-down between Obama and Netanyahu, which will be sliced and diced by both political parties as a barometer of the state of U.S.-Israeli relations under Obama.
Republicans and Democrats are already active on numerous other fronts:
Seeking to inoculate the president from Republican attacks, the Democratic Party distributed an Internet video last week that included a clip of Netanyahu praising Obama's commitment to Israel's security, a key concern for many American Jews in light of Iran's ongoing nuclear program.
In Florida and beyond, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, has been visiting Jewish communities, penning articles in Jewish publications and taking to Twitter to diffuse Republican claims that the president, as the Republican catchphrase goes, has "thrown Israel under the bus." As chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, the 45-year-old Jewish South Floridian is one of Obama's top emissaries to the Jewish community.
The Obama campaign also has been distributing campaign literature touting the president's commitment to Israel and has created a "Jewish Americans for Obama" web page.
On the other side, the Republican Jewish Coalition issued its own video two weeks ago highlighting "the disconnect between President Obama's rhetoric about his support for Israel's security and his actions."
And eminent Florida Jewish Republicans like Sid Dinerstein are out in force. Chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party, Dinerstein speaks to Jewish voters whenever he can. One of his key tactical goals: setting up beachheads in the retiree-heavy condominium communities in the county's western suburbs where many Jewish seniors live. In early February, he helped gin up support at the new Ronald Reagan Club at Valencia Palms west of Delray Beach.
Dinerstein's Republican counterparts in Broward are doing the same, and launched a Jewish outreach effort last year. There's an active Republican club at Wynmoor Village, the retiree-heavy condominium community in Coconut Creek that's home to many Jewish residents.
The No 1. argument between Jewish Republicans and Democrats is about Israel, especially what kind of security guarantees for the Jewish state should come as part of any regional Mideast peace negotiations, and the potential threat from Iran's suspected efforts to develop a nuclear bomb. Republicans claim the president hasn't done enough to support and protect America's only friend in the Middle East.
"I don't like the way Obama is treating Israel," said Beverly Asnien, a retired teacher from Wellington who said she feels no loyalty to either party. "I'm not that satisfied with the Republicans, but I would vote for Romney in lieu of Obama. And I don't think I'm the only one who feels this way."
Lenore Wachtel, 72, a Boca Raton Democrat, backs Obama, but says she understands why some of her friends don't anymore.
"Obama has made several statements that have led some Jewish people to believe that he is not supportive of Israel, that he has more sympathy for the Palestinians than the Israelis, and that has made them question, or look at the Republicans," she said.
"I'm not thrilled with him. I'm not thrilled with the way the administration, the Democrats are treating Israel," said Stan Cohen, 78, a Sunrise Republican.
Minerva Fishman, 93, of Coconut Creek, said that's wrong. "President Obama is doing as good a job as he possibly can with all the opposition he faces from the Republican Party. I'm going to vote for him," she said. "I hope most of our Jewish people recognize the fact that he happens to be very good for Israel as well."
Democrat Joy Feingold, 80, of Pembroke Pines, said she too will vote for the president. But, she said, she's on the receiving end of missives from her cousin that suggest Obama has betrayed Israel. "I don't answer his emails," she said.
Former U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, a Democrat who represented a Broward-Palm Beach county district with more Jewish constituents than any other in the U.S. House for 13 years until he became president of the Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace in 2010, blames the growing doubts among some Jewish voters on a "massive misinformation campaign regarding President Obama's excellent record involving Israel."
Wexler, who was Obama's most prominent early national Jewish supporter before the 2008 election, said the American-Israeli security relationship is better now than under previous presidents of both parties.
"It's not just Democrats who are saying that, it's Israel's highest defense and security officials who are saying it," Wexler said.
Whatever truth there is in the criticisms of Obama, there's little doubt that Jewish voter support for the Democrats has waned since his arrival at the White House.
The Pew Research Center reported that 65 percent of American Jews identified themselves as Democrats or said they leaned toward the Democratic Party in 2011. Republicans got 29 percent.
Though Democrats still enjoy more than a 2-to-1 advantage, those figures still represent a significant shift by Jewish Americans toward the Republicans. Pew found the Democratic advantage among Jews is now 36 percentage points — down from 52 points four years ago.
Wexler said there is no disputing that Israel is a vital issue for Jewish voters, but that it's a mistake to assume that it's the only one that will sway them. If the U.S. economy continues to improve, Wexler said, the president's standing will improve among all Americans, including Jews.
On one issue, Jewish leaders in both parties appear to agree: the current emphasis on often divisive social issues like abortion or contraception in the Republican primary campaign is good for Democrats.
"The focus on the social conservative agenda does not sit well in the Jewish community," Wexler said. Dinerstein acknowledged that "centrist Jews are uncomfortable" with candidates playing too much to conservative Christians on social issues.
Looking beyond the horizon of this year's presidential election, the broader trends among American Jews may ultimately favor the Republicans. The generation whose political views were shaped in the mid-20th Century has a virtually unbreakable bond with the Democratic Party, said Terri Fine, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida, who has researched and written on Judaism and politics.
"My grandmother and people who were FDR Democrats grew up as Democrats, always voted Democrat. They didn't know anything else." said Jay Siegel, of Coral Springs, former vice president of northwest Broward's Republican Business Network. But, said Siegel, "the demographics are changing as the older people pass away."
Younger people no longer feel the same allegiance to the Democratic Party as their parents, and especially their grandparents. "We see emerging Republicanism among younger Jews," Fine said
What's more, religiously conservative Jews are more inclined to vote Republican, said Margi Helschien, of Boca Raton, vice chairwoman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party. And the Orthodox — the small but fastest-growing branch of the American and South Florida Jewish communities — are more Republican than are the Conservative and Reform Judaism branches.
But while Republicans emphasize that cheery long view of the Jewish community's political evolution, most Democrats discount it. During each of the past three presidential campaigns, Wexler noted, Republicans also proclaimed they were on the verge of making big inroads among Jewish voters, but it didn't happen.
Obama won an estimated 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008 and Republican leaders concede he will win most of Florida's Jewish voters again this November. Their mission is to gnaw away at that margin of support as best they can.
"No one's pretending that all of a sudden the Republican nominee will get a substantial majority of Jewish votes. But the small percentages are always important in swing states," said Steven Abrams, a Palm Beach County commissioner.
And Florida is the biggest state that could go for either party in 2012. Demographers estimate about 3.5 percent of Florida's population is Jewish, but CNN exit polls showed they accounted for 4 to 6 percent of the vote in recent presidential elections.
In a state where the margin of victory can be slender — Obama won Florida with 51 percent of the vote four years ago — a small but politically active constituency can push a candidate over the top. So it's little wonder that South Florida Jewish voters like Joe Weisman are coveted by both the president and his adversaries.
Weisman, 47, a Tamarac Democrat, voted for Obama in 2008, but is concerned about the president's policies toward Israel and hasn't made up his mind about this year's election.
"I'm on the fence right now. The Republicans need to come up with a viable candidate, and they haven't. There's nobody on the Republican ticket that I'm ready to vote for," he said. "It's still early. The election is a long way off."
Watch dueling videos about Obama and Israel from Democrats and Republicans and read an interview with former U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler at SunSentinel.com/BrowardPolitics.
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