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“We’re taking nothing for granted in reaching out to our base vote,” said Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida congresswoman who is chair of the Democratic National Committee and a key South Florida Obama surrogate.
But in the race for the Jewish vote, all Republicans may not be equal.
Backed by billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, Gingrich has worked to attract Jewish support for his campaign. The Republican Jewish Coalition’s Florida Region will host a Gingrich event in Delray Beach on January 27. Gingrich has surged to the top of the Republican field in recent days, leading Romney by 7% in Florida and even beating Romney in some national polls.
Gingrich supporters say that their candidate will appeal to Jewish voters as the most supportive of Israel among the Republican hopefuls. “He’s the most pro-Israel Republican in the race,” said Steven Abrams, the Gingrich campaign’s chairman for Palm Beach County and an elected county commissioner. “Palestinians are an invented people?” Abrams said, referring to a much cited charge made by Gingrich late last year. “Can’t get more pro-Israel than that.”
Israel advocates have praised both Gingrich and fellow GOP candidate Rick Santorum for their legislative work during their respective terms in Washington. “In particular, the people who have done the most… on U.S.-Israel relations, not only who have talked beautifully… you have a guy like Gingrich and a guy like Santorum, two candidates who have been extraordinary on our issue when they were in office,” said Ben Chouake, president of NORPAC, a political action committee dealing with relations between the United States and Israel.
But some Republicans said that they saw no space among Romney, Gingrich and Santorum on Israel. “All three of them would move Israel past the existential threat that Barack Obama represents,” said Dinerstein, who has not endorsed any of the candidates.
In conversations with the Forward, Florida Jews who described themselves as disaffected toward Obama often cited concerns over his administration’s policy toward Israel. But they drew a sharp line among the Republican hopefuls.
“I have heard people say they would vote for Romney but not Gingrich or Santorum, because their politics appear to be too extreme,” said Rabbi David Steinhardt, leader of Boca Raton’s B’nai Torah Congregation, a Conservative synagogue.
Jewish voters broadly cited the economy as among the most important issues influencing their vote. Though South Floridian Jews are older and often retired, some said they would vote based on the economic interests of their children. Most said that they weren’t concerned about losing Medicare or Social Security benefits.
“We have pensions and Medicare, and we don’t have to worry,” said Marilyn Riederman, 72, Obama supporter and full-time Delray Beach resident. “My children may have to worry; my grandchildren certainly are going to have to worry.”
On the economy, Romney seemed to come out ahead among Jews who are considering voting for Republicans.
“The first thing in the Jewish community is the economy,” Siegel said. “The real issue amongst Jews is who can fix the economy the best, the businessman or the historian.”
Jewish Republicans are generally less conservative than the bulk of the party on social issues. And though there were some Jews at a Coral Springs rally for Santorum, who made his name as an opponent of abortion and same-sex marriage, his support in the Jewish community seems thin.
Santorum “seems to have concentrated solely on social issues and is irrational on foreign policy,” said Cyrus Cowen, 73, a Delray Beach resident and a Democrat considering a vote for Romney. Cowen said that he opposed Santorum’s support for a continued American presence in Iraq.
Meanwhile, Gingrich seemed vulnerable among Jews, particularly Jewish women.
As she left a morning service at B’nai Torah, Arline Rein, 71, said that she planned to vote for a Republican in the general election. But Rein, who winters in Florida and votes in Michigan, has problems with Gingrich’s character. She particularly doesn’t like Gingrich’s wife, Callista. “She was obviously the mistress,” Rein said.
Rein’s concerns were echoed by other older Jewish women, many of whom cited recent claims by Gingrich’s second wife that the former speaker of the House had asked for an “open marriage” in order to carry on an affair with Callista.
Some Jewish Republicans were unenthusiastic about the entire primary field. “You have to hold your nose,” said Micki Kaufman, a resident of Rye, N.Y., and Boca Raton. Kaufman, attending a Kiddush after Friday night services at Congregation B’nai Israel, a Boca Raton Reform synagogue, expressed deep displeasure with Obama. But she wished the Republicans had come up with a different sort of challenger.
“Why can’t they find a nice, young, haimish guy?” Kaufman wondered.