U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania could hardly contain his delight as he addressed a packed ballroom at the Plaza Hotel while he was in New York for the Republican National Convention.
"Just know I love you!" the GOP senator, a Catholic, shouted to the largely Jewish crowd at the Republican Jewish Coalition's (RJC) Salute to the Republican Congress.
After kvelling about how thrilled he was to have been introduced before Republican Sen. Arlen Specter -- his Jewish colleague from the Keystone state -- Santorum commanded the crowd to go back home and sing the gospel of President Bush. After all, it could help in swing states like his.
"I will not be satisfied with 20 percent of the Jewish vote, I will not be satisfied with 30 percent, I will not be satisfied with 40 percent," he said as the crowd cheered. "George Bush deserves a majority!"
At that, the crowd began to chant, "Four more years! Four more years!"
Santorum was part of a round-robin of Republican lawmakers who are love-bombing Jewish audiences with testimonials about the courage of freedom-loving Jewish people. It's a far cry from the "some-of-my-best-friends-are-Jews" tone struck by some Republicans of yesteryear and even from the tepid meet-and-greets with Jewish groups at the 2000 GOP convention in Philadelphia.
This year, Republicans went all out to welcome their Jewish brethren into the GOP fold in a city with a large Jewish population. It's not just about votes. American Jews find themselves at the center of a new culture war, the one between secular and religious America, between the blue states and the red ones and the hawks and the doves. And the Republicans want them on their side.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) stated it most clearly.
"There is no Palestinian-Israeli conflict, there is only the global war on terrorism," DeLay said at the Plaza Hotel recently. "On one side stands the United States, Israel and dozens of [other] countries. On the other side stand Yasser Arafat, Al Qaeda and an Axis of Evil bent on the destruction of Israel. All the rest is a question of commentary."
DeLay had thrown down the gauntlet, and the crowd of 1,500 began to cheer. John Kerry, DeLay continued, thinks the war on terror "depends on France and Germany. George W. Bush thinks the war on terror depends on fearless American leadership. That's the difference that defines them."
A day earlier, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman struck a similar note at an event sponsored by three Jewish groups. Their message was that a vote for Bush is a vote for moral clarity; multilateralism is just a fancy word for appeasement.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), like Giuliani a possible presidential candidate in 2008, also spoke at the event.
At every step, the Republicans message was clear: New York and Jerusalem are closer than you think. When Al Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center, America became even more inextricably linked with Israel. The Bush campaign has given the Jews a leading role in the central narrative of the 2004 campaign.
It's a unique position for a traditionally Democratic constituency. But there's some logic to it. Since Sept. 11, beleaguered Israel has become a symbol for the U.S. war on terrorism, with the Israelis standing in proxy for the Americans and the Palestinians wearing the face of the whole Arab world.
As such, Israel has become a kind of GOP mascot, one that also plays into Bush's own religiosity. Israel resonates both in the Bible Belt and the Big Apple.
The Republican efforts may be working. Susan Canter, a registered Democrat who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, explained why she was backing Bush after having voted for Al Gore in 2000.
"He's just so pro-Israel," said Canter, a lawyer. "There's been no American president who's ever come with such strong support for Israel.... I can't think of not voting for him."
And of course there's former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who has emerged as one of the most vocal pro-Bush Democrats.
"He knows that Israel faces international terrorism every day, and so do we, and that they are not willing to submit as other countries are, and he's not going to run out on them," Koch said. "And it happens that international terrorism is threatening to both the United States and Israel. I mean, what they want to do is kill us!"
Koch seems to speak for those who are voting for a commander in chief as much as a president. Indeed, the Bush campaign seems to be taking pains to draw a direct line from Ronald Reagan, the man who toppled the Soviet Union, to Bush, leader in the war on terror.
The narrative conveniently skips Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush, who was seen as no friend of Israel during his term from 1988 to 1992. In his failed re-election bid, the elder Bush received only 11 percent of the Jewish vote in 1992.
"Twenty years ago, Ronald Reagan spoke with moral clarity of the nature of the Soviet Union, and it had big-time political consequences," Mehlman said at the Jewish community event on Aug. 29. In a five-minute speech, Mehlman used the term "moral clarity" at least four times.
But even if they're backing Bush on foreign policy, some Jews are concerned about the evangelical Christian right's sway with the Bush administration. They did not take kindly to the display at Madison Square Garden during the convention's first night, when the light and dark wood paneling on the speakers' lectern took on the unmistakable form of a cross.
The National Jewish Democratic Coalition issued a press release the following day, calling it "the very height of insensitivity" for the Republicans to feature a cross at the center of the podium.
"This wooden cross must be at least 3 feet tall, and it sends a signal of exclusivity loudly and clearly," said Ira Forman, the organization's executive director.
Others see no threat. "They still think I'm going to hell, because I have not accepted Jeeesus Chrast as mah per-son-al sa-vior," Jonathan Paull from Houston said, adopting a Texas drawl not otherwise evident in his speech as he mingled at the Jewish community event. "I don't care."
The young attorney said he was voting for Bush because of "a political reality."
Still in New York, where progressive passions have long run high in the Jewish community, there is a core of Jewish voters that remains steadfastly anti-Bush. These Jews don't cheer when Republicans invoke the mantra of Jewish persecution, and they don't clap when Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said at the Plaza that "there is nothing they [the terrorists] want but your death and entire elimination from the planet."
Instead, they've been protesting. Standing outside the Plaza, a group called Jews for Racial and Economic Justice waved signs reading "elephants are not kosher" and chanted angry slogans peppered with Yiddishisms. "No war in our name, it's a shanda, it's a shame," they recited over and over.
As the election nears, Democratic Jewish leaders know they're in a bind about foreign policy and have been trying to shift the debate away from Israel to trigger issues like abortion, education and the separation of church and state.
"I think it is a mistake to go after George Bush on Israel, because the Jewish community thinks he has been very good on Israel," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). "So here's what I tell Jewish voters: George Bush is good on Israel, but why vote for someone who you disagree with on everything else? Why let your loyalties to Israel be split from your loyalties on other issues?"
Schumer's message could help stem some Jewish drift toward the GOP, but it's hard not to see it as a concession of sorts, an admission by the Democrats that the Republicans have defined the terms of the debate so effectively that it's not even worth competing on the same rhetorical battlefield.
This shift would have seemed improbable, almost farcical, four years ago, when Al Gore tapped Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut as his Democratic running mate. Lieberman became the first Jew to run on a major party's national ticket.
For some Jewish Democrats, Lieberman's nomination was the culmination of its long relationship with the party -- particularly since the Republicans had chosen as their candidate the son of a president who was unpopular with the Jews, and who also happened to be a cowboy and an evangelical Christian, who they feared would blur the boundaries between church and state.
It may just be a kind of provincial ignorance, but in the Jewish heartland of New York City, let's face it, neither of these images played terribly well.
But in the intervening years, some of these same Jews have changed their minds. While few Jewish voters feel much passion for Kerry -- even if they are planning on voting for him -- Jews for Bush speak about their candidate with an almost religious fervor. It's the kind of passion that gets them chanting, "Four more years, four more years!" at rallies, and makes this strange new marriage between New York sophisticates and a Texas cowboy seem almost beshert (ordained).
All this may seem like an awful lot of work to win just 4 percent of the voting public. But in today's frozen political landscape, in which the electorate has hardened into blocks of stubborn Republicans and stubborn Democrats, the support of a well-placed fraction of the Jewish community can ripple and multiply into influence. In states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where the election will be close, every vote counts.
"If you look at the states that are close, the change in the Jewish vote could actually throw the election into Republican hands," said Fred Zeidman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and a prominent Texas fundraiser who has been working with the Bush campaign on Jewish outreach. "So obviously, we are focusing on the Jewish vote in states that could change the election."
Since 2000, the RJC has opened branches in Florida, Southern California, Philadelphia and New York and is looking to start a Midwest regional office. Its membership has swelled to 12,000 from 2,500.
It's also focusing on younger Jewish voters who may be less tied to party affiliations than their New Deal Democrat grandparents and civil rights era parents, said Greg Menken, 31, who directs the year-old New York RJC chapter.
Yet even as Republican Jewish events celebrated Jewish strength in the face of adversity, a strange kind of energy also coursed through the crowd. Whenever a speaker says words to the effect that "the very existence of the State of Israel is now under siege," the audience applauds. Of course, they're applauding, because they agree with the speaker, not because they're happy about the current state of affairs.
Yet at the same time, these Jews seem to show a certain pride, a sense of vindication that the Republicans are beginning to see how ugly things can get. Who knows how it'll play. What's bad for the Jews might turn out to be good for Bush.
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