More and more, it looks as though the precipitous plunge of former Vermont governor Howard Dean will deny the Republicans what they wanted most this year: a liberal Democratic patsy for President Bush to trounce on Nov. 2.
The rise of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) as the Democratic front-runner, with Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) as a respectable second, will alter a lot of plans in Bush-Cheney re-election headquarters, and that includes plans for harvesting Jewish votes. Kerry's rise means an even more targeted Jewish GOP strategy, combined with an ongoing effort to pry Jewish campaign contributors loose from the Democrats.
It's important to note at the outset that the GOP was never planning to mount an all-out offensive to win Jewish votes nationwide for the simple reason that with relatively few Jewish votes in play, the results would not justify the costs.
Almost every analyst agrees that Bush, benefiting from his unusually close relations with the current Israeli government and his leadership in the war on terror, will fare much better among Jewish voters than he did in 2000, when he won a paltry 19 percent of the vote. But almost no analyst, including top GOP strategists, believes he has a chance to do much better than 30-35 percent.
That's a significant increase, with the potential to have a critical impact in a handful of states. But it's hardly the political revolution that some pundits have predicted.
Many Republicans believe Kerry will cut into those predicted gains. Kerry, with a solidly pro-Israel record in the Senate, is expected to bring back to the Democrats some Jewish swing voters who may have been drifting to the GOP. That drift, most analysts say, would have been the greatest if Howard Dean had been the Democratic front-runner.
Dean quickly retreated from his September demand for a more balanced U.S. approach to the Middle East, but the damage was done. Such statements made him a prime target of the Jewish right, and his positions gave some middle-of-the-road Jews who put Israel high on their list of political priorities the jitters.
Kerry has not been a pro-Israel leader, but he has voted consistently for the positions advocated by the pro-Israel lobby. In addition, he has the aura of experience that leads many Jews in the political center to believe he won't try to shake up U.S. policy in the region.
The dramatic change in the Democratic race will reinforce this year's Jewish-GOP strategy, which will be a limited and very focused one.
Many Jews are concentrated in states where the president is unlikely to run well, and where even a significant Jewish shift is unlikely to make any real difference. That includes Maryland, New York and possibly California.
In a few other states, Bush is expected to do well in what could be very close votes -- and big Jewish populations there are very much in play and very much desired by the Republicans. Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio are the states most frequently cited by GOP strategists.
The plan is obvious: focus on Jewish voters in those few swing states where the Jewish vote could make a real difference. In the rest, rely simply on cadres of Jewish Republicans and groups such as the Republican Jewish Coalition, as well as Bush's reputation as a friend and supporter of Ariel Sharon, to produce gratifying but modest gains.
The GOP approach to Jewish voters in those targeted states will be equally narrow. It will start and end with Israel and terrorism. The president will be portrayed as the best friend Israel ever had in the White House and the leader most capable of waging a sustained, effective war against terrorism.
Republicans understand that mainstream Jews are simply not going to line up with them on domestic issues, especially the anti-government, anti-social welfare and faith-based approaches that the Bush campaign will have to ratchet up to please its conservative base.
At the same time, party activists say they will intensify their ongoing effort to pry more Jewish campaign donors from the Democrats. This is a win-win proposition for the GOP. The extra money is nice for the party, but even nicer is denying it to the Democrats, who are much more dependent on Jewish givers.
The Republicans understand the growing gap within the Jewish community, with community leaders and big political givers generally more conservative than the overall Jewish population. That represents a universe of opportunity for the GOP, and party strategists are already exploiting it.
The Jewish vote, itself, is changing much more slowly. The Republicans see a positive trend in their direction, but it will be years before they can even hope for Jewish majorities in most elections. Major impediments remain to their recruitment of Jews, starting with the GOP love affair with the Christian right.
That relationship may win the approval of Orthodox activists, but polls continue to show most American Jews fear the religious right and see it as a political adversary, not an ally.
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