Obama and Romney

Mitt Romney makes two fundraising stops in Boca Raton (Sun Sentinel / May 17, 2012)

— The presidential candidates are far from South Florida, but their campaigns this weekend are all about one of the most coveted groups in this year's election: Jewish voters in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

In ways both large and small, President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney were playing for the Jewish vote.

The Obama campaign deployed a Jewish state legislator and three rabbis to Boca Raton on Friday to make the case that the president is a friend of Israel and that there's no reason for Jewish voters to abandon their decades-long allegiance to the Democratic Party.

Romney surrogate Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, appeared two miles away and two hours later and excoriated the president's policies and attitude toward Israel, charging that Obama has chipped away at the longstanding U.S.-Israel alliance.

Giuliani took on Obama's most prominent Jewish supporter in Florida, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. Referring to her by name, Giuliani dismissed her vouching that Obama is a "friend" to Israel. "That's a joke," he said.

In Washington, Obama signed the U.S.-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act, a law that provides for technical and military assistance, increased joint military exercises, and provides more money for the so-called Iron Dome missile defense shield.

Romney was in London for the opening of the Olympic Games. The Democratic campaign event in Boca and the president's official action at the White House were designed to pre-empt Romney's next big move, when he makes a large play for Jewish votes by traveling to Israel on Saturday. Romney will meet with the nation's leaders, raise campaign money and attempt to portray himself as a far better friend to Israel than Obama ever will be.

While Jews make up an estimated 3.5 percent of the Florida population, they vote in greater numbers than most demographic blocs, have always been strongly loyal to the Democratic Party, and polls show a razor-thin margin between Obama and Romney.

Republicans acknowledge Obama still commands significant support among Jewish voters. Nationally, a June Gallup poll found the president has 64 percent of the Jewish vote, compared to 29 percent for Romney.

That's a good showing, but not good enough. In 2008, he won an estimated 78 percent of the vote among Jews, and he needs something closer to that level of support to win.

Rabbi Kurt Stone of Tamarac, who teaches politics and international relations at Florida Atlantic and Florida International universities and leads the North Broward havurah, a Jewish fellowship and prayer group, said he doesn't think Jewish support for Obama is slipping. "Some people are saying it's a little bit softer," he said. "My feeling is that it is virtually the same as it was in 2008."

Rabbi Frederick Greenspahn, who teaches Jewish studies at Florida Atlantic University, said Republicans proclaim each election is finally the one in which Jews will abandon the Democratic Party. "People say the Jewish vote is going to change and time after time after time it goes up and down a couple of points but it does not change dramatically."

Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party, said 2012 is different. "We've never had an anti-Israel president before."

State Rep. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach, said Obama has increased security spending, defended Israel at the United Nations and tightened sanctions against Iran. Under Obama, the "bond between Israel and the U.S. is stronger than ever."

Giuliani, speaking to about 300 cheering Republicans at Romney's Boca Raton campaign office, countered that Obama's true feelings are revealed by the fact that he hasn't visited Israel since taking office. Democrats point out that Obama visited twice as a senator, and past-first term presidents – including Republicans – haven't visited Israel in their first terms, either.

Former Florida House Majority Leader Adam Hasner of Boca Raton, a Republican congressional candidate, complained Friday that Obama hasn't recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital city — a move Republican presidents haven't made, either.

While Democrats from Wasserman Schultz on down profess optimism — Berman said "support for President Obama is strong in South Florida" — the Obama camp is clearly concerned. It's made special efforts to reach out to Jewish voters, including personal attention from the top. In March, Vice President Joe Biden campaigned at Wynmoor Village, a heavily Jewish condominium community in Coconut Creek. Last week, campaigning at Century Village west of West Palm Beach, Obama proclaimed his unwavering support for Israel.

Greenspahn said it would be a mistake to assume Jewish voters make their decisions based primarily on Israel. Obama is in line with most Jews on a host of economic and social issues, he said.

Giuliani's 12-minute indictment of Obama included the economy and the health care overhaul law commonly known as Obamacare. "I guarantee you that if we elect Mitt Romney, our economy next year will boom," he said.

Linda Koopman, a retired teacher who lives west of Delray Beach, was wearing an "Obama oy vey!" button at Romney's Boca Raton campaign office.

Koopman, 68, said she was a Democrat and "part of the hippie generation" in her youth. She's now a Republican who will vote for Romney.

She said Republicans have a chance to make inroads with Jewish voters. "There are some who will never change but there are many who are disappointed with his views on Israel."

aman@tribune.com or 954-356-4550