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October 24, 2012

A week on the Florida campaign trail

http://www.jewishjournal.com/cover_story/article/a_week_on_the_florida_campaign_trail

Left: Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan speaks in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Oct. 19.  Photo by Cliff McBride, The Tampa Tribune/APVice. Right: President Joe Biden gestures during a campaign speech on Oct. 19 in Sun City Center, Fla.  Photo by Chris O’Meara/AP

Left: Republican vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan speaks in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Oct. 19. Photo by Cliff McBride, The Tampa Tribune/APVice. Right: President Joe Biden gestures during a campaign speech on Oct. 19 in Sun City Center, Fla. Photo by Chris O’Meara/AP

Day One: Departing Israel

Spending a week in Florida on the eve of a presidential election has become a habit for me — one I cherish. Meeting the elderly women who suddenly become interested in politics; attending synagogues, to which the candidates flock in droves to speak; watching the hurried traveling convoys of dignitaries and emissaries and surrogates making their last-minute pitches; enjoying the hospitable weather.

As I left Israel to come here, the Knesset was about to officially disperse. Soon enough, Israel will have its own round of elections, and the speeches made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz, the opposition leader, were no more than election speeches.

The American public views Netanyahu in a positive light, according to a Gallup poll taken during the summer. Israel is also viewed positively by the American public, even more so than Netanyahu. Thus, as the two American presidential candidates play the Israel card in their public appearances, they play both offense and defense in somewhat tricky ways.

Consider this: For Mitt Romney, invoking Netanyahu’s name is a way of putting President Barack Obama in a tough spot. Naturally, Obama doesn’t want to acknowledge that his relations with Netanyahu are bad, that he can barely stand his presence and can hardly stomach the need to maintain contact with him. Such an admission would make matters even worse policy-wise, and might not fly with the voters who tell pollsters that they view Netanyahu positively. It might even seem problematic to voters who do not like Netanyahu but understand that having a contentious relationship with him does not serve any purpose.

Thus, when Romney calls forth the name “Netanyahu,” the only possible and credible response he can get from Obama is “Israel.” Obama doesn’t speak much about the prime minister. On the other hand, speaking about “Israel” is good for Obama, because Israel, as I mentioned above, is more popular than Netanyahu. Israel is what pro-Israel voters are concerned with. Israel is the way for Obama to circumvent “Netanyahu” or “the government of Israel.” The president has made it a habit to constantly express his support for the country, while constantly, if more subtly, expressing his dislike of its democratically elected leadership.


Day Two: Boca Raton

I began a big-fish debate night with the little fish: Florida congressional candidates speaking to a Jewish crowd. It was 7 p.m. on Oct. 16, and at the entrance to Temple Beth El of Boca Raton, dozens of young, Jewish campaign volunteers were waving signs at the coming cars, distracting drivers, threatening to scratch their side windows.

Volunteers for Republican congressional candidate Adam Hasner were mostly yarmulke-wearing young men who seemed markedly Orthodox. If their presence at the forum is any indication of Hasner’s chances — he might have one. But it could also be a sign that Hasner’s young, Jewish supporters are the ones with the commitment and the enthusiasm — though not necessarily the numbers. It was, after all, just one evening, one event, one crowded temple. Crowded, but not packed. (Well, is a temple ever packed except on Yom Kippur?)

Rabbi Dan Levin began the evening with a couple of words about the houses of Hillel and Shammai, of which the Talmud says: “These and these are both equally the words of the living God.” Which, naturally, reminded me of Obama and Romney. And if their words weren’t quite godly in their second debate, the heat and combative manner could certainly be compared to the Beit Hillel-Beit Shammai battle of ideas.

And, of course, moving from the Beth El forum to the Long Island debate didn’t feel like a huge leap. The Forward’s Gal Beckerman tweeted toward the end: “With questions from Carol Goldberg and Jeremy Epstein bookending this debate, it is officially the Jewiest debate ever.” Noah Pollack asked: “Was that a town hall debate or a meeting of Beth Shalom Congregation of Five Towns?”

More than an hour passed before the candidates got a question on foreign policy — Libya. Until then, immigration and a passing mention of China were the closest we got to the world beyond America’s borders. If anyone was still in need of any proof that American voters — Jews included — care in this election cycle only about the economy and jobs (no, not about Israel, and I also didn’t hear any question on Iran), this debate was proof enough for me.

And yes, the Libya moment was one of the highlights of the evening. But it was also more about America, not about the world. It was less about the right way to fix Libya or the guidelines for intervention in foreign wars and much more about Libya becoming a political football.

Day Three: Boca Raton

The Florida headquarters of the Republican Jewish Coalition are in an office building that my simple tastes find quite ridiculous. It is Boca Raton, the beach is nearby, the sun is almost always out (not on Oct. 17, the day I visited, though), but the building has an indoor mock tropical pool with trees around it, and a plastic-y feel to it. A meaner writer would suggest that this is possibly a side effect of having a Las Vegas magnate as your organization’s prime supporter, but I think that’s probably just a coincidence. And besides, the RJC office itself is simple and lacks any sign of glitziness. There are volunteers sitting at tables surrounded by posters: “RJC phone bank instructions & script – FL.” A banner on the wall reads “Obama ... Oy Vey!!”

 

The volunteers call Jewish voters throughout Florida, opening the conversation with, “How are you?” and then continuing, “As you know, this is the most important election in our lifetime” — a view not necessarily shared by all. They explain: “Israel is at risk. Our economy is weak. Unemployment rates are at historic highs.” Mike Sanders, a volunteer from Lake Worth, Fla., said that his job is “to influence Jewish people to think” about their political choices. Sanders, originally from New York, and later a military man and later of Kmart, said he suspects most of them don’t: “They vote instinctively for the Democrats.” Sanders’ parents were Democrats, but he “believes” — doesn’t know for sure — that his two children (he also has three grandchildren) will vote for the “right candidate,” whom he believes is Mitt Romney.

I asked him in which presidential election  he first voted, and he didn’t remember. We did the math — 1964 seemed the probable answer. Did he vote for Barry Goldwater? He didn’t remember. Judy Madison, my next interviewee, is younger, but had the same problem remembering her earliest choice. Unlike Sanders, though, she is not a Republican. Calling herself an Independent, she has voted in the past for Republicans, including Ronald Reagan, as well as Democratic candidates — Jimmy Carter among them. Carter, Sanders said, was the worst American president ever, and, for Madison, Obama is not far behind.

Both volunteers shared a dislike for Obama that was quite bluntly expressed. “Obama doesn’t care for Israel at all,” Madison said. And, three minutes later, she added: “He is out to destroy the country.”

Sanders talked about Obama’s “background” by way of explaining the president’s desire “to distance himself from Israel,” but did so in rather vague terms. “Do you remember your religious upbringing?” he asked me. “I remember my early years; they leave a lasting impression.”

I asked Sanders:  Are you implying that Obama’s schooling in Indonesia is the reason for his rocky relations with Netanyahu? “I remember my early years, and that’s all I’m going to say,” he responded.

Madison voted for Obama four years ago but became disappointed with him “within the first year” of his presidency. The other day, as she was watching the second presidential debate, she was reminded that he is “an amazing speaker.” Romney — she said — “did OK.” He wasn’t great. And on some issues, she doesn’t agree with him, abortion being one of them. But she wants Jewish voters to look at the “bigger picture,” at the issues that matter most — the economy and Israel. 

The conversations she has had with voters have become testy at times. “Democrats often don’t even want to listen,” she said. Sanders told me he has twice been called a Nazi. Four years ago, he was “dismayed” with the Jewish community for the vast majority of votes it gave to Obama — votes such as Madison’s. Will it be any different this time? Sanders shook his head and rolled his eyes. Yes, he said, more Jewish voters will vote for the GOP candidate this time. “The more intelligent voters,” Madison called them.


Day Four: Fort Myers

Oct. 18 was an intense day, starting with meetings with two congressional candidates on the east side of Florida, continuing with a long drive along Route 80 across the state, and ending with a Paul Ryan rally in Fort Myers — well, not quite ending. After the rally, I still needed to find a hotel and get something to eat (ice cream).

Rallies are boring. You spend a long time waiting, then have to listen to a long line of speakers you don’t much care about, as well as a singer — Lee Greenwood was good but gave me the impression the GOP doesn’t want the vote of anyone who doesn’t like country music (just to be clear: 1. I do like it, and 2. I can’t vote anyway), and a comedian — Dennis Miller was funny, well, as funny as one can get at such a political event (he wants to fire the president). And then you wait some more.

By the time Ryan took the stage, the crowd was on the verge of exhaustion. But it was still interesting to listen. The campaign was at its most juvenile stage, with the two camps constantly trading allegations over small nuances, mocking one another for things unworthy of attention, twisting words, parsing meanings, attacking, responding to attacks, responding to the responses, keeping track of the responses, calling one another liars. 

Here’s what I heard from Ryan and what I learned about the state of the race:

1. The long line of speakers was all male, except for one — Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. And she was the one who got to introduce Ryan to the cheering crowd. The battle for women’s votes is on, yet the Romney-Ryan ticket doesn’t seem to believe polls saying women are focused on abortion as the key issue of this election. They keep arguing or pretending or believing — I actually think they genuinely believe — that the abortion answer from women is a knee-jerk response, and that women tell pollsters what they think is the correct answer, while what they truly care about is the economy and jobs. Thus, Ryan keeps telling women to give Romney a chance to fix the economy and largely ignores the contentious subject of abortion.

2. Ryan, turning Bill Clinton’s words against Obama, got some attention after the rally. “Just today, President Bill Clinton said it is true that our economy is not fixed. He is right,”  Ryan said. Obviously, this was an attempt to get under the other campaign’s skin, and obviously, Ryan got the attention he wanted, and obviously, Clinton’s intent was different from what Ryan said, and obviously, the faked anger at Ryan’s trick was, well, faked. In campaign silly season, using such a quote is hardly the worst thing that the candidates are doing.

3. Ryan is not a great speaker, not nearly as good as Obama or Clinton. Ten minutes into his speech, I spotted quite a few people leaving. But I’m not sure great speaking matters to the campaign at this stage. The Republican campaign seems at peace with Romney’s lack of coolness. In fact, it is attempting to turn it into an advantage. For Ryan, this translates to a message of change — change of priorities. Four years ago, Americans voted for the cool guy, now it’s time to vote for the uncool but very efficient manager. Is he wooden? Yes, he is, but we don’t care. Of course, Ryan doesn’t say Romney is wooden, but reading between the lines, this is the message. Even female voters — so he believes — would this time go for the less charismatic, more dependable candidate.

4. The GOP debate narrative goes like this: There had been three debates until now — two presidential debates and one featuring the vice presidential candidates. In all three, the Republican candidate won. In the first, Romney was debating an empty chair (Ryan reminded the audience how Clint Eastwood was mocked for the empty chair gesture at the Republican National Convention, but ended up being right). In the vice presidential debate, the GOP voters disliked the blustering, arrogant Biden. The third debate — the one more Americans said Obama won — was also a Romney achievement. Obama was so helpless that he needed the moderator to intervene on his behalf, so Ryan said.

5. Last point: Reminding the crowd of the third debate, the Candy Crowley intervention and the Libya question might seem odd: This was supposedly the point at which Romney lost the debate. However, listening to Ryan, it became clear that the Romney campaign still believes the Libya debacle hurts Obama and is worthy of as much attention as possible as a foreign-policy issue. As for Obama and Biden, Libya is “an embarrassment” that they “can’t reasonably escape.”

Day Five: Sun City

With the Ryan rally still fresh in my memory, I drove to a Joe Biden event the morning of Oct. 19 in Sun City, Fla. It was a much smaller event and much more scripted. The crowd was sitting on folding chairs, not standing on grass, the stage was closer up, and the fact that the vice president had a teleprompter was visible to all. It was also quieter.

Here are a few comparisons of these two events:

Energy: The Ryan event won, hands down. It drew a much larger and much more enthusiastic and committed crowd, armed with flags and signs, cheering, booing the other side, laughing, singing along. It was also a much younger audience, children and babies included. The Biden morning event was for people who could take a Friday morning off — namely, older retirees. Not that they didn’t show their support for the vice president — they did — and the echo within the closed room made it seem louder. Nevertheless, I got the feeling of a more subdued response, shorter rounds of applause, a less combative type of support.

In fact, a more enthusiastic group was to be found on the road leading to the event. South Pebble Beach Boulevard was lined with Romney-Ryan supporters carrying signs, getting the attention of the passing drivers, seeming quite cheery. If these two events are indicative of anything — and I can’t tell you whether they are until I get to see a couple more — the Romney camp seems more battle ready and more confident than the president’s camp.

Message: Biden was Biden. After so many years and so many campaigns of all types, the vice president is a well-known commodity whom people either like or dislike. Biden has traveled to Florida 24 times since the beginning of his term, 11 of them this year. His ability to connect with this audience is high — higher than Ryan’s still-untested skills at national rallies. Biden’s main topics were the economy, Medicare, jobs, health care and a mix of the currently fashionable “women’s issues.” Biden also talked a lot about economic issues, but more about Medicare and vouchers and health issues. The tweaking of the message toward more “cultural” issues is evident at this stage of the campaign. The Obama team is reading the same polls we all do and is reaching the same conclusion: The president cannot win this on the economy.

Laughs: Biden is funnier. He is funnier than Ryan, and I’m afraid he’s even funnier than Dennis Miller — at least that day he was. As I said, the mood at the Biden rally was not as combative as at the Ryan rally, but the main speaker was more entertaining.

Women: At the Ryan event, the only woman speaking got the honor of introducing the candidate. The Biden event was not only different, but went further. The woman speaking was a breast cancer survivor, hence a speaker even better tailored to convey Obama’s message of a women-friendly presidency. Emphasizing the message was Biden’s opening, in which he introduced his daughter, Ashley. “They do not believe in women’s health,” Biden said. It was right at the opening of his remarks, and the vice president delved into it with gusto.

Best line: For Ryan, I think I’ll settle on the empty chair quip. With Biden, my line of choice would be, “When the woman doesn’t get paid equally, the family suffers” — a smart way of turning the main Obama-Biden message into something all-encompassing. Another laugh came when Biden, seemingly reluctantly, “corrected” the president: Romney’s plans are not “sketchy,” they are “Etch A Sketchy,” which got him many laughs.

Foreign policy: I focus specifically on foreign policy for two reasons. One — I’m interested in the topic. Two — the foreign-policy debate was looming. Interestingly, Biden avoided Libya and most other foreign-policy issues. He did talk about Afghanistan, conveying the safe message of withdrawal. And he talked a lot about soldiers and veterans.

As I wrote earlier, the Romney team seems to believe that the Libya issue — debate moment-of-hesitation aside — is one that benefits the GOP candidate and hurts Obama. And they are not alone. As I was waiting for Biden, I had time to read a couple of articles by other commentators, and came across this paragraph from Charles Krauthammer: “Unfortunately for Obama, there is one more debate — next week — entirely on foreign policy. The burning issue will be Libya and the scandalous parade of fictions told by this administration to explain away the debacle.”

Is Biden’s silence a sign that the Obama team has similar suspicions?


Day 6: West Palm Beach

On the congressional level, only two pairs of Jewish rival candidates have survived all primary battles and other obstacles to face one another. The two Democratic congressmen of California’s 30th District race — the much-talked-about Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman. And two not-so-famous local politicians in Florida.

Meet Lois Frankel, a Democratic candidate, former mayor of West Palm Beach and former minority leader in the Florida House. And meet Adam Hasner, her Republican opponent and former majority leader in the Florida House.

Lois and Adam

Left: Lois Frankel, Democratic candidate for Florida’s 22nd District. Photo by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom. Right: Adam Hasner, Republican candidate for Florida’s 22nd District. Photo by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

Polls show the race is a dead heat — or do they? One, from about two weeks ago, gave Hasner a slight advantage. Another, from a week later, said Frankel was leading, but only by three points. Internal Democratic polls, though, point to a far clearer Frankel lead. In Democratic circles, the internal polls are considered to be more serious, more nuanced and well-researched. Hasner, naturally, points to the fact that the unbiased polls are those in which there’s a tie.

I should note, however, that in my week-long visit to Florida I met a few Republican operatives who all thought that a Hasner victory would be a very big surprise in a district that is new and untested and in an area known to be more hospitable to Democratic candidates, Obama included.

Whatever happens in this race, it won’t change the House Jewish projection for the 2012 election cycle. When both candidates are Jewish, a Jew is (obviously) going to win. Of course, a Hasner victory would be both more surprising and more Jewishly significant, as it would add a second Jewish Republican to the House. Hasner is also the candidate openly putting his Jewishness forward in this race, while Frankel is much more reluctant to make a Jewish case. This is obvious for anyone looking at their Web site bios: Hasner’s says he’s Jewish in the second sentence; Frankel’s doesn’t mention it.

“The values I was brought up with reflect priorities of this community,” Frankel told me last week, when we met for a long conversation in West Palm Beach, where she had been mayor. But she believes that “Jewish voters are no different from other voters” and doesn’t feel the need to “wear my Judaism on my sleeve.”

Earlier on the day of our conversation, Hasner had met with Sol Urbach, a “Schindler’s List” survivor, at his office in Boca Raton. Urbach had come to convey his support, and Hasner apologized for being late to our meeting because he couldn’t cut short Urbach.

When Hasner talked about the Jewish voter, he sounded quite different from Frankel. “No voter should be a single-issue voter,” he said. About 15 percent of the area’s voters are Jewish, some highly involved in the campaigns. And Hasner and Frankel believe that for many, the economic issues will be front and center, and that they will be looking for the candidate who makes sense on the bigger issues of the day.

I spent a couple of hours traveling with Frankel through downtown West Palm Beach, her city. She showed me the public library, her pride — and it is not hard to see why. Frankel was an active two-term mayor, at times controversial, often confrontational. “A brash politician with big goals and the will to achieve them, no matter who stood in her way,” is how the Palm Beach Post described her.

She seemed more bored than angry when I asked about Israel. Bored by the need to defend herself, when she was “pro-Israel before Adam was even born.” Bored by the need to explain to Jewish voters that “making Israel a partisan issue doesn’t help Israel.” Israel “doesn’t need to be an issue in this campaign,”  she said and quickly returned to explaining why she’s the right choice: the economy, social safety nets, women’s rights, the role of government — on all of these issues she is the one representing the interests and the desires of the 22nd District voters, so she believes.

We walked through a downtown West Palm Beach that was turned upside down and renovated under her leadership.

Conveniently, both candidates said that “differences between us are very clear,” as Hasner put it. This is, of course, true when talking about economic issues, about the Obama administration. It is also true when it comes to Israel, but in a somewhat different way: Hasner’s emphasis on the issue is in great contrast to Frankel’s dismissive reluctance to make it one.

For me, though, their markedly different answers to all questions related to the Jewish vote, to Jewish voters, was the most telling. It is reflective of two world views — one giving Judaism a central role in public life, the other considering it a more private matter; one seeking an expression of communal Jewish interests, the other refraining from any such communal otherness.

If either is more Jewishly engaged, I cannot tell. That depends in many ways on one’s definition of “engagement.” Hasner led a Florida bill of divestment from Iran, and did so, no doubt, because he felt this was an American interest and also because he felt it was his duty as a Jew. Frankel also said that her beliefs in social activism and social justice stem from her Jewish upbringing.

That they choose such different paths can lead to one of two possible conclusions: Either one of the two candidates is more influenced by Jewish values and commitments ,and the other is just faking it — or that Judaism is just broad enough to include both ideologies and ways of communicating them.

I end this here because of our press deadline; I will be posting more online from Florida in the coming days and will move to Ohio for the final week of the campaign. To read more, please visit jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.

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