US presidential hopefuls court Florida's Jews

Tuesday's crucial primary is the biggest ahead of 'Super Tuesday.'

Giuliani  224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Giuliani 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Tourists aren't the only ones who have been escaping the January weather by descending on this balmy peninsula famous for its beautiful beaches, Cuban delicacies and Jewish retirees. The Republican presidential candidates have also set up shop across the state trying to woo voters ahead of the crucial primary to be held here Tuesday. While the tourists don't get to vote, the Jewish retirees do, and that has led many of the candidates to make substantial efforts to reach out to the Jewish community. A small portion of the American public, Jews play an outsized role in the Sunshine State. "The [2000] presidential election was won in the state of Florida by a little over 500 votes," said demographer Iran Sheskin of the ballots that put Republican George W. Bush over Democrat Al Gore, adding that when it comes to the Jewish vote, "It's still a small percentage, but in South Florida it's a very big percentage." And a win in Florida could have big implications for who ultimately gets the nominations, as it's the largest and most diverse state to vote ahead of February 5, when many of the other major states will vote in a day that could well determine whom each party picks. While there are only some 720,000 Jews in this southern state - out of more than 18 million residents - with some 600,000 of them in the Miami area, but they comprise around 5 percent of registered voters. Jews tend to vote at higher rates than non-Jews (nationally about 90% of Jews are registered voters as compared to about 65% of non-Jews) as do the elderly versus the young. Since half the Jewish population in the Miami area is over the age of 65 by Sheskin's count, the Jews of Florida are a prime political target. Besides, said Sheskin, they don't have any excuse not to turn out. "You live in a housing development. The polling station is in your club house and you're there almost every day anyway, and you're retired - of course you're voting," he said. Sheskin, an associate professor at the University of Miami, plans to vote for Sen. Hillary Clinton even though the Democratic National Committee stripped Florida of its delegates to next summer's nominating convention for moving its primary ahead of "Super Tuesday," February 5. "It still matters who wins. People still know that if Florida votes one way, then when Super Tuesday comes along," he explained, "people could jump on the bandwagon." In addition to its symbolic significance, there are rumblings that in the end the National Committee could be forced to reinstate Florida's delegates. And for the Republican candidates, the vote Tuesday is practical as well as symbolic. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani has made perhaps the most sustained effort among Jewish Republicans, whom he sees as natural customers for the brand of politics that he's selling. "Part of it is obviously that there's a lot of New Yorkers in Florida," said the Giuliani campaign's chief operating officer, Ken Kurson. (By Sheskin's count, some 250,000 of the Jews in Florida hail from New York.) Kurson also emphasizes the issues that are Giuliani's strengths, such as transforming New York and dealing with the September 11 terrorist attacks. Even those subjects that are seen as weaknesses among the committed conservatives who generally vote in Republican primaries - liberal views on social issues such as abortion and gun control - tend to be non-issues with Jewish Republicans, who don't follow party orthodoxy on these issues. And that has made Giuliani appealing to some non-Republican Jews as well. It's the model that the Giuliani camp hopes to win with. "If the Republicans do not nominate someone who can win votes from non-traditional constituencies, it will be a real wipe-out in 2008," Kurson said. While other candidates' adherence to the traditional Republican line - embracing conservative social issues as well as hawkish foreign policy stances - makes for a less full fit with the Jewish community, most still find some appeal among Jewish voters by stressing those priorities on which there's agreement. Charlie Spies, the COO for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's campaign, has been emphasizing Romney's business acumen, as well as his "pro-Israel policies" and his feeling that fighting "the threat of radical jihad has to be our top priority." Spies has relocated to Florida and is focusing now on Jewish outreach, while Romney and several of his sons have appeared at events at Jewish facilities during that time. "It's an important community. With the non-stop focus on Florida, we wanted to reach out and make sure that they're aware of our message," Spies said. Romney also has strong economic credentials, having built a successful business that gave him enough money to self-fund much of his campaign. Conservative economic views are also attractive to many Republican Jews, and they are likely to value economic platforms more now that the US economy is struggling. Both Giuliani and Romney - as opposed to fellow Republicans Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, and Ron Paul, a US representative from Texas, who have not focused on the Jewish community - have sent surrogates to the Jewish community. They include Jewish dignitaries, such as former ambassador Mel Sembler, a Romney partisan, and active Jewish politicians, like US Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, a Giuliani backer. Giuliani has even been using a famous Israeli to help his case - his campaign has reprinted on a brochure a compliment from Ehud Olmert, dating back to the time when their concurrent tenures as mayor brought them close together. But Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has recently overtaken his competitors in the polls in Florida, where Giuliani has concentrated his campaign effort and once held a commanding lead in surveys, has called in potentially the biggest Jewish gun: Joe Lieberman. An Orthodox Jew who ran as the Democrat's vice presidential nominee in 2000, the Connecticut senator remains a favorite in the Jewish community. He has backed McCain because of his strong support for the War on Terror and other national security issues, as he has told Jewish audiences at synagogues and community centers over the last couple weeks. He has also demonstrated the Arizona senator's cross-over appeal, an important point for McCain, who has won many independents based on his "maverick" reputation and would like to gain more. But that might not help him in Florida, where Independents can't vote in the Republican primary. McCain and Romney now lead in the polls, with Giuliani having lost his lead. For Democrats, Sheskin thought that Florida's Jews would pick Clinton over Illinois Sen. Barack Obama for much the reason that he has - her experience. And that, he maintained, resonates with elderly Jews who themselves have had more life experience. "She's considerably older than he is, and one of the things that I've learned is that 20 more years of experience make a difference," said the 57-year-old Sheskin. "I've made 20 more years of mistakes that I've learned from - hopefully."