It began like a hailstorm and hasn't let up.
First, spirited sniping over Israel between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney during their Boca Raton debate. Then came the Democratic and Republican surrogates, intensifying protracted efforts to court the Jewish community in South Florida.
Both sides have a dual mission: winning over Jewish voters in Broward and Palm Beach counties — and scaring them away from the other guy. With the contest for the state's 29 electoral votes exceedingly close, there's little chance either side will stand down before Election Day.
The effort is so important to the Obama campaign that Jack Lew, the White House chief of staff, remained in South Florida for two days after Monday's presidential debate. His mission: meet with Jewish Floridians — at a synagogue, before college groups, and at gatherings of leaders — to spread the pro-Obama word.
"If you look at the Jewish community, nationwide and in Florida, it is still very much pro-Obama, pro-Democratic," Lew said in an interview.
Republicans are also out in force. In addition to TV ads, mass mailings and billboards — the "Obama … Oy Vey!!" signs on Interstate 95 and Florida's Turnpike — from the Republican Jewish Coalition, led by billionaire casino mogul and Romney supporter Sheldon Adelson, the Romney campaign has deployed its own Jewish surrogates.
On Thursday, former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., headlined Jewish Americans for Romney events at a condo community, a synagogue and a bagel shop. Then he headed to faceoff with former state Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County."I can't tell you we're going to win a majority of the Jewish vote, but I can guarantee you Barack Obama's not getting [his 2008 total of] 78 percent of the Jewish vote this time around," Coleman said in an interview.
The back and forth between Obama and Romney on Israel, and subsequent spinning from their surrogates, shows the intensity of the efforts. The Jewish vote in South Florida is "absolutely critical," Coleman said.
Jewish voters have gone 3:1 for the Democratic presidential candidate for the past four decades. Though Jews make up 3.4 percent of the Florida population, according to estimates by Ira Sheskin, a geography professor and director of the University of Miami's Jewish Demography Project, they turn out in greater percentages than the population as a whole, making up 6 percent of Florida's voters.
With a tight race, a small shift away from the Democrats and toward the Republicans could determine the outcome. And the race in Florida is close; the RealClearPolitics average of Florida polls on Monday showed Romney with 48.7 percent and Obama with 47 percent.
Edith Klein, who lives west of Boca Raton, said she was a liberal Democrat as a young woman. Now 75, she's a Republican.
"I can't believe that any Jewish voter would vote for Obama after what's been going on here," she said. "They are Roosevelt Democrats from way back. They have always been Democrats and they just can't break away." She termed him a failure on the economy and foreign affairs.
Ruth Weinstein, 94, a Democrat who lives in Coconut Creek, said she believes Obama supports Israel, and has done the best possible job to clean up the economic mess he inherited. She's incensed by the Republican Jewish Coalition's anti-Obama ads on TV. "They are really out of bounds," she said.
Republicans have been attempting to sow doubts about Obama's support for Israel, and declarations of support for the country have become a litmus test for the 2012 campaign. At the Monday night debate, Obama mentioned Israel 17 times and Romney 14 times — plus three mentions from moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said Romney "has used Israel as a political opportunity and [shown] it's not really a priority for him."
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Obama's pro-Israel rhetoric isn't credible. "Obama tried to sound more Israeli than [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. I don't think it's believable, but it's nice to hear," she said.
Democrats and Republicans view Obama's record on Israel completely differently: Republicans complain he hasn't visited Israel as president; Democrats say only two presidents have visited Israel in their first terms, one for a funeral. Lew said it's "a silly question. It's a question that's asked by people who want to create a sense that you can't trust a person."
Coleman said Iran has gotten closer to developing a nuclear weapon that could threaten Israel and the U.S.; Lew says implemented sanctions that have hurt Iran and gotten other nations to join that effort. Coleman says Obama has been disdainful of Netanyahu, something Israel's enemies have noticed; Lew says Obama has spent more time with Netanyahu than any other world leader and has provided more military aid than ever before.
Democrats argue that Jewish voters care about many issues besides Israel. Obama's stands on social issues are much more in line with most Jewish voters than Romney's, Lew said.
Coleman said social issues aren't what matter most to everyday Americans. The continuing poor economy under Obama will trump those questions, prompting Jewish voters to go for Romney, he said.
Alvin Schwartz, 86, of Pembroke Pines, is skeptical of all politicians, including the presidential candidates. He plans to vote for Obama.
"I've been voting Democratic since my father told me," he said. "I believe that President Obama will be closer to Israel than Mitt Romney will be. But let's remember: We're talking politics. They'll say anything to get elected."
Obama and Romney supporters on the South Florida campaign trail at SunSentinel.com/BrowardPolitics.
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