'Obama faces hostility in certain Jewish communities'

Florida politicians at Democratic National Convention warn that the presidential hopeful faces significant challenges winning over some Jewish voters.

obama pensive 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
obama pensive 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
Florida politicians attending the Democratic National Convention here are warning that Barack Obama faces deep hostility in certain Jewish communities and that the campaign might not be doing enough to counter the negative attitudes of these voters. During a National Jewish Democratic Council forum on the Jewish vote Monday, State Senator Steve Geller recounted that Jewish audiences in the retirement communities of Southern Florida have attacked him for his support for the presumptive Democratic nominee. "I've gone to meetings where people have been downright hostile to me. People that I poll 90 percent positive with turn on me when I try to defend Sen. Obama," he said. Geller described the Obama campaign as "not necessarily" getting how difficult a challenge they face winning these voters, who are usually Democratic stalwarts the party can count on to turn out in heavy numbers. Fellow State Senator Nan Rich also urged attention be focused on the community at the NJDC event. "I want everyone to leave here realizing that we have a significant issue that has to be addressed in the next few weeks if we're going to have any chance of getting Florida in the blue column," she said, using the color synonymous with a Democratic win. She said Obama was hurt by the fact that Florida didn't hold a proper primary, so he hadn't had a chance to introduce himself to voters during the primary race at the beginning of the year. His campaign said it plans to have Senator Obama make a trip to meet with seniors in the area in the coming weeks. The visit had originally been scheduled for the late spring, but was scrapped when Obama had to be in Washington for a key vote. In the meantime, the campaign has been sending surrogates to reach out to the Jewish community and make the case that Obama is a strong supporter of Israel and the Jewish people, as well as to counter unfounded rumors that he's a Muslim. Geller said that he has had some success in reassuring Jewish voters when speaking to them one-on-one, but that national Jewish delegates have not made many inroads. "We're hoping that this is starting to change people's perceptions, but it hasn't done so yet," he said. But Congressman Robert Wexler, who represents Jewish-heavy parts of southern Florida and has appeared at numerous events in support of Obama as one of his earliest congressional supporters, called backing for Obama among his constituents "substantial." Asked whether Obama has a weakness among these voters, he replied, "The Jewish community in southern Florida is solidly behind Barack Obama." Wexler asserted that it was "wrong" to say that he was greeted by the Jewish community with hostility at current campaign events when he stumped for the Illinois senator, and attributed earlier reactions to the strong feelings many Jewish Floridians had for Obama's primary rival Hillary Clinton. "That support was reflected in people's emotions and passion," he said. He was speaking after a press conference with Jewish media at the convention during which Jewish politicians supporting Obama pointed out that polls have given their candidate a 61-32 edge over Republican presumptive nominee John McCain, similar numbers to those John Kerry received early on his Democratic presidential campaign in 2004. That number climbed to 76 percent by Election Day in November. A Democratic political strategist, though, suggested that it wasn't clear if Obama would make up the ground Kerry did, which could significantly hurt Obama in the swing state of Florida. "Does he have problems in the Jewish community? Yes," he said, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue. Though Obama is doing well overall among Jews and even Republicans don't question that he'll receive the majority of Jewish support, the strategist said the campaign is aware of the challenges it faces. "I don't think anybody has their head in the sand." But Geller is still concerned, despite feeling that the Obama campaign has made a good start. "People who are denying that there is any problem with Jewish seniors in Florida are wrong. We need to fix it, and to fix it you have to be aware of it," he said, arguing that a good showing among the demographic is still possible. "We need to understand that we can't just wish it to come about. We need to work to make it come about."