Sen. John Kerry, the Boston Brahmin who has so far won the vast majority of Democratic primaries and caucuses, appears to have opened up an insurmountable lead over rival Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) for the presidential nomination. A victory in delegate-rich California would cement Kerry's status as an unbeatable front-runner and undoubtedly boost his profile in the local Jewish community, where, according one observer, the four-term Massachusetts senator and Vietnam veteran remains a bit of a "mystery man."
With his extensive foreign policy experience, strong pro-Israel voting record and left-of-center political views, Kerry would seem a particularly attractive candidate to Southland Jews who identify themselves as Democrats by a two-to-one margin. That Kerry's paternal grandparents were born Jewish and his youngest brother and close adviser, Cameron, converted to the religion more than two decades ago might also curry favor, experts said.
Arden Realty Chairman and Chief Executive Richard Ziman, a long-standing Kerry supporter, said he expected more Jews to embrace the senator as they come to know him.
"I like his politics. I like his presence. I like his intellect. I like his experience," said Ziman, who has sponsored two large fundraisers at his home in the past year for Kerry that have raised more than $700,000. "Most of all, I think he's the only person capable of beating Bush."
Maybe. At this point, though, local Jews, even Democrats, have yet to fall in love with Kerry -- they are in "like." Simply put: Jewish support for Kerry appears softer than for some past Democratic presidential candidates, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
A relatively more conservative Jewish electorate, Bush's pro-Israel policies and Kerry's fondness for the United Nations, an organization viewed by many Jews as anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic, mean that the aristocratic legislator with a shock of gray hair must work hard to attract Jewish votes and dollars.
Kerry also has something of an image problem. Unlike former President Bill Clinton, whose charisma and warmth made him a favorite in the Jewish community, Kerry is "a cooler emotional package" who has so far failed to arouse as much passion, said supporter Howard Welinsky, chair of Democrats for Israel, adding that he considers Kerry "Lincolnesque."
None of this is to suggest that Kerry won't win a majority of Jewish support both locally and nationally, if nominated. In the once crowded field of Democratic hopefuls, Kerry has emerged as a local favorite.
He connects better with the community than both Edwards and ex-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the former front-runner who just quit the race, said Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss. Dean's promise of a more "balanced" approach to the Middle East and his description of Hamas members as "soldiers" frightened many Jewish voters and could have led to mass defections to the Bush camp, Weiss said. A Kerry nomination would reduce that likelihood, he said.
The senator plans to fight for every Jewish vote, said Ari Melber, a Southern California deputy political director on the Kerry campaign who's responsible for Jewish outreach. Melber and other staff members have assembled a group of prominent Jewish Democratic supporters to spread the word about Kerry in the community. Among Kerry's foot soldiers are Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills and Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.
"We don't take any single community as a given," Melber said.
Kerry has history on his side. No Republican presidential candidate has won a plurality of the Jewish vote since 1920, when Warren G. Harding took an estimated 43 percent to Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs' 38 percent and Democrat James Cox's 19 percent, Steven Windmueller of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion recently wrote. In the 2000 election, Bush carried a paltry 19 percent of the Jewish vote.
Kerry's progressive agenda appeals to many in the community, said supporter Lee Wallach, president of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life of Southern California. Unlike Bush, the senator favors abortion rights and opposes drilling for oil in Alaska, Wallach said.
"It's night and day with Bush and Kerry," he said. "Kerry is very supportive of environmental guidelines that protect our children, so we have a better world for them and for their kids."
Kerry also has a kind heart, said Ruth Singer, a major Southern California fundraiser. On several occasions, the senator called her family to check up on the health of her late husband, who recently died. "That's something that someone in his position doesn't need to do," Singer said.
For many partisan Jewish Democrats, the fact that Kerry isn't Bush is reason enough to support him, said Raphael Sonenshein, a political scientist at California State University, Fullerton. In their view, Bush stole the last presidential election and misled voters by running as a moderate but governing from the right, Sonenshein said.
However, the era of the monolithic liberal Jewish vote has drawn to an end, said Joel Kotkin, senior fellow with the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University. In the California gubernatorial recall election, Republican candidates Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill McClintock won 40 percent of the vote. As Jews have shifted to the center from the left, moderate Republicans, such as former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and ex-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani have fared surprisingly well in the community, Kotkin said.
On the right, Orthodox Jews generally seem to support Bush, said Rabbi David Eliezre, president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County. Not only do they see him as a staunch defender of the Jewish State, but they share many of his social policies, including his opposition to gay marriage and his support of vouchers for religious schools, he said.
Bush's staunch support for Israel has won plaudits. So has his war on terror, including the toppling of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, once the Jewish State's biggest enemy.
Republicans are so confident that Bush can win more Jewish votes that they have ratcheted up outreach efforts. In California, hundreds of Republican volunteers plan to register new voters and hand out pro-Bush literature at delis, Israel fairs and anywhere else Jews gather, said Bruce Bialosky, Bush-Cheney California Jewish Outreach chair.
Activist Joel Strom said he has already noticed a softening of attitudes toward Bush among Jewish Democrats. The president of the Republican Jewish Coalition of Los Angeles said members of his temple are far more open to Bush now than before.
"Four years ago, people in my synagogue would say he doesn't care about the Jews. He's not good for Israel. Look at his dad's record," said Strom, referring to the first President George Bush. "Now, when I go to synagogue, some members say they don't like him, but he's good for Israel. Others like him."
Strom's optimism might not be misplaced. A survey released in January by the American Jewish Committee found Bush receiving 31 percent of the vote against Kerry's 59 percent, with 10 percent undecided. If those numbers hold up, that would be a big improvement over Bush's 2000 performance.
Kerry, who receives high marks from Jewish organizations for his voting record in the Senate, has recently seen some Jews question the depth of that support. Speaking before the Council on Foreign Relations in December, Kerry set off a firestorm of controversy when he said that if elected, he might appoint former Secretary of State James Baker III or former President Jimmy Carter or Clinton as a special envoy to the Middle East.
Anti-Defamation League Director Abraham Foxman said that although Kerry had a good record on Israel, the senator's remarks concerned him. "Carter's anti-Israel. Baker hasn't been a friend. Clinton didn't succeed" in bringing peace to the region, he said
Kerry's approach to diplomacy has aroused fears. The candidate said he wants to rebuild America's alliances by ending the Bush administration's go-it-alone foreign policy and working more closely with international organizations, such as the United Nations, a body that once equated Zionism with racism.
"At heart, John Kerry is a garden-variety State Department Arabist, regardless of his public pronouncements," Republican political strategist Arnold Steinberg said. "I think the Jewish community is throwing the dice with John Kerry and could end up with someone like Bill Clinton, who resurrected Yasser Arafat, by inviting him to the White House when he was becoming irrelevant."
Carmen Warschaw, former Southern California chair of the Democratic Party, said she thinks Kerry can win both a commanding share of the Jewish vote and the November election.
Still, Bush possesses an important trump card. A war with Syria or some other foreign adventure could divert attention from domestic problems, galvanize Americans behind the president and propel him into the White House for a second term, Warschaw said.
"I think with the president's and his advisors' mentality, they'll look for a menace or a war or find [Osama] Bin Laden," she said. "They'll create that kind of atmosphere. I'm not saying they'll do it purely consciously, but I think that's their mentality."