A life-long Democrat, Robert Canvasser was talking himself into voting for Republican John McCain because he just wasn't comfortable with his own party's choice of Barack Obama. But then McCain selected first-term Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate ahead of last week's Republican convention.
"That put me back to Obama," said the real estate developer who splits his time between Michigan and Florida, both crucial swing states in the presidential election. "Don't misunderstand me. I'm not happy with Obama. But I'm certainly not happy with her."
Canvasser is part of a trend among some Jewish Democrats who have had doubts about Obama, particularly because of his lack of experience and his take on foreign policy issues such as Iran, but now find themselves inclined to support him after both sides selected their vice presidential nominees.
"There has been a tremendous turnaround since the Democratic convention," said Florida State Senator Steve Geller, who at the convention in Denver three weeks ago had described outright hostility among many Jewish Democratic seniors in his district at the thought of an Obama presidency. "After the convention, people are willing to listen. Before the convention, they weren't willing to listen."
He attributed that partly to recent visits to the Sunshine State by high-profile Democrats such as vice presidential nominee Joe Biden as well as the strong endorsement of Hillary Clinton from the convention floor. Indeed, Canvasser also said that the warm embrace of Clinton, whom he had backed, for her erstwhile rival had helped tether him to Obama.
But mainly Geller chalked up the difference to Palin.
"Sarah Palin is helping a lot. Sarah Palin in seen as a right-wing evangelical [pick]," he said. He added that while that perception helps the McCain campaign with many Christian voters energized by a so-called hockey mom who hunts and fishes in her spare time, "Most of our South Florida condo people are appalled at seeing her standing over a moose."
Her views on social issues - pro-life, anti-gun control and the like - definitely helped discourage Seymour Ross of Delray Beach from voting for the Republican ticket. While he has been wavering between the two candidates because he thinks Obama would "make nice" with Iran, Palin's "extreme conservative views" have tilted him more toward the freshman Illinois senator.
"I still would have been going in the direction of Obama, but it makes it a little bit clearer," Ross explained.
His feeling is something the National Jewish Democratic Council has seized on to raise money from supporters.
"Palin is totally out of step with public opinion in the Jewish community" on domestic issues and has "zero foreign policy experience," the organization wrote in a fund-raising letter sent out last week. It also started an on-line petition asking: "McCain: What were you thinking when you selected Palin?"
At the same time, the Obama campaign has increased its Florida outreach efforts, announcing that it formed six Jewish Community Leadership Committees throughout the state comprised of backers involved in Jewish non-profits, schools, synagogues and other facets of the community. They also count several rabbis among their members, some of upwards of 400 who have joined the campaign effort as part of the group "Rabbis for Obama."
"Our field operation," according to Bobby Gravitz, Obama's regional communications director for South Florida, "is the largest organization of any Democratic campaign statewide ever."
He said that while certain misinformation about Obama's positions on Iran and other issues continues to circulate, the campaign has been successful in putting to rest at least some rumors - such as his being a Muslim - that have harmed the candidate among Jewish voters.
The McCain campaign also points to inaccurate rumors as hurting its efforts to woo Jews, such as the erroneous charge that Palin once endorsed Republican Pat Buchanan. But it is not ceding any ground, and still expects exceptional Jewish turnout despite American Jews' long-standing preference for the Democratic Party.
"At the end of the day, this is a contest between Barack Obama and John McCain, and for Jewish voters across the country that's the decision they'll have to make," said the campaign's deputy communications director, Michael Goldfarb. "We're confident they'll move to John McCain in large numbers."
He added that Jewish voters still need to get to know Palin.
"You can't get farther away from Pennsylvania and Florida and New York than Alaska," he explained. "It's a question of introducing her to these communities."
Goldfarb stressed her commitment to Israel and said that once the Jewish community gets to know her, "They're going to be extremely comfortable with her."
Indeed, some Jewish voters have not been dissuaded by her candidacy.
"She's not going to overturn Roe v. Wade," said Boca Raton retiree Alan Bergstein, referring to the landmark Supreme Court case granting women the right to an abortion.
He said he intends to continue backing McCain because of concerns over Obama's attitude toward issues such as Israel, and his conclusion that "McCain would be a stronger candidate for the defense of our country."
And Florida political activist Adele Berger, a Clinton supporter who is now pushing for Obama, said that still for many of her fellow Democrats, "There are many, many people here that do have issues with Obama. I'm working very, very hard to overcome that. It's going to be difficult."
Berger said that for all the Obama surrogate visits to her state, they have yet to come to her area of Pembroke Pines, a major Jewish enclave, which has been frustrating. "We need someone with a name, to make them understand" why they should support the Democratic nominee, she said.
Obama and several top surrogates, including former president Bill Clinton, have trips to Florida in the works for this month, though it's not clear exactly where they will appear. But wherever they go, Geller is confident that they will face more supportive audiences than he once encountered.
"In general, he has more work to do, but it's no longer walking into a hostile crowd. You sill have some people who are hostile [toward Obama], but today most are friendly," he said. "Does he still have work to do? Absolutely. Has he fixed most of it? Yes. But it's still hard."
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