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CLEVELAND — Ohio is often described as an electoral battleground where domestic policies are key. Quite suddenly, though, Israel and the Middle East have become hot topics here in the Buckeye State.

Senator John Edwards and Vice President Richard Cheney took time during their debate here Tuesday to spar over Iraq and to cast their respective approaches to the Middle East as playing a key role in defending Israel. Both men said Yasser Arafat is not a partner for peace.

Edwards suggested that a Kerry administration would do a better job in confronting the flow of financial support for terrorism from Saudi Arabia and in working to block Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

“And I might add, it is very important for America to crack down on the Saudis who have not had a public prosecution for financing terrorism since 9/11,” Edwards said. “And it’s important for America to confront the situation in Iran, because Iran is an enormous threat to Israel and to the Israeli people.”

Meanwhile, Cheney unveiled a new talking point in his defense of the Iraq war, arguing that the invasion had helped produce a drop in terrorism in Israel.

“In respect to Israel-Palestine…” Cheney said, “the suicide bombers, in part, were generated by Saddam Hussein, who paid $25,000 to the families of suicide bombers. I personally think one of the reasons that we don’t have as many suicide attacks today in Israel as we’ve had in the past is because Saddam is no longer in business.”

The focus on Middle East policy and its effect on Israel echoed recent efforts by both campaigns and their surrogates to win Jewish voters in a state that many prognosticators say could end up selecting the winner in November.

With 21 electoral votes, Ohio, which narrowly went for Bush in 2000, is considered the greatest swing-state prize for both parties. A microcosm of America, it has voted for the winner of every presidential election since 1964. In a state of some 11.4 million, the 144,000-person Jewish population constitutes a small, but active, slice of the electorate that mostly votes Democratic.

Edwards wasn’t the only Democrat pounding away in Ohio at the Saudis.

Surrogates for the Kerry-Edwards ticket were at it, too.

The National Jewish Democratic Council’s Victory Fund, the Jewish group’s 527 “soft money” arm, flayed President Bush in an ad highlighting his ties to the Saudis.

“On our side?” asks the ad about President Bush. “Crown Prince Abdullah, shown below with President Bush, blamed ‘Zionism’ for murderous attacks in Saudi Arabia. Unlike John Kerry or congressional leaders, George Bush failed to condemn Abdullah publicly.”

“There is a choice,” the ad concludes. “John Kerry/20 years of standing with us,” it adds, in a reference to Kerry’s pro-Israel Senate record.

The NJDC Victory Fund’s “walking piece” — a flier for distribution in neighborhoods — offers up a similar message. “Before you vote, make sure you know where the candidates really stand,” the flier states. It features a picture of Bush walking with Prince Abdullah and a separate one of John Kerry shaking hands with Senator Joseph Lieberman.

The executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Matthew Brooks, said that the Saudi-themed ad “only continues to show the hypocrisy of John Kerry and the NJDC, both of whom would rather engage in political rhetoric than substantive action.” Brooks said Kerry’s record on Saudi Arabia “doesn’t stand up to scrutiny” because Kerry did not co-sponsor the Saudi Arabia Accountability Act or two recent “sense of the Congress” resolutions calling on the Saudis to cease supporting religious ideologies that promote hatred. The measures have not come up for votes.

The Media Fund, a Democratic 527 funded by billionaire financier George Soros, is also blasting Bush over his ties to the Saudis. The fund is putting $6.8 million into expanding the reach of a set of tough television ads highlighting the president’s ties to the Saudi royal family. One of the ads suggests that Bush’s Saudi ties may have been behind his decision to excise 28 pages from the congressional report on the September 11 attacks. The ad refers to “28 pages of evidence that the Saudi government funded the terrorists who killed nearly 3,000 Americans.”

Having tested the efficacy of the ads in the media market of St. Louis, the group is going to be running them in Ohio and other states.

The Media Fund’s president, Erik Smith, said the ads “moved independents, but also helped solidify Democrats. It’s rare to stumble across something that speaks so effectively to both base and swing voters.”

Rob Zimmerman, who heads the government relations committee of Cleveland’s Jewish Community Relations Council, said that unlike in previous years, when Republicans ceded the Jewish votes to the Democrats, this year Republicans “have made a real effort to turn Bush’s stances into real electoral support on the ground.”

It is not clear, however, that these efforts will have much success, said University of Akron political scientist John Green, who annually surveys 4,000 Americans on their attitudes toward religion and politics. “The Jewish community in Ohio looks a lot like the Jewish community nationally,” which surveys indicate will vote heavily Democratic.

Even so, the competition for Jewish voters is fierce. The NJDC’s Victory Fund has two operatives in Ohio: Carol Rubin, 25, a native Ohioan, is stationed in the greater Cleveland area, and Gary Hauptman, 51, is based in Columbus, with responsibility for Dayton and Cincinnati.

The Kerry campaign also has sent its Jewish surrogates to the state; Kerry’s senior adviser for Israel and Jewish affairs, Jay Footlik, spent Tuesday in Columbus at a pre-debate party hosted for community leaders by a prominent couple.

The Bush-Cheney campaign, for its part, has “active Jewish coalitions in place in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus,” according to the campaign’s Jewish outreach coordinator, Michael Lebovitz. The Cleveland coalition had an event with Brad Blakeman, an Orthodox Jewish New York native who used to be Bush’s scheduler.

The Republican Jewish Coalition is heavily advertising in Jewish publications, such as the Cleveland Jewish News.

On the ground in Cleveland, evidence of extreme emotion for both candidates abounds.

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, a Cleveland native who took Bush’s part in a debate with liberal syndicated columnist Leonard Fein at the packed annual meeting here last month of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said he found the atmosphere to be “very polarized.”

“I was simultaneously booed and cheered,” said Jacoby, who drew the loudest jeers when he called the Democratic Party “a place where antisemites feel most comfortable.”

Fein was reportedly greeted with “thunderous applause” when he told the crowd that “if the president of the United States is not good for America, he cannot be good for Jews. Bush is wretched for America.”

As in other communities throughout the country, the political divide in Ohio’s Jewish community appears to be largely denominational. In Beachwood, a Cleveland suburb where about 80% of the population is said to be Jewish, the Forward found mostly vociferous Bush voters at Sukkot gatherings at several Orthodox households. At one home, one female Bush supporter chided a Kerry backer, saying: “You must not care much for the survival of the State of Israel.”

Religiously liberal Jewish households in the same neighborhood, however, took a proud stand for the Democratic candidate, judging by the healthy showing of Kerry-Edwards lawn signs.

Ruth Lieberman, a Jewish Democratic activist from Lyndhurst, Ohio, a suburb adjacent to Beachwood, said that she thinks many wealthy Ohio Jews are voting for Bush because they benefited from his tax cuts.

“It’s a pocketbook issue,” she said, adding that many were brandishing the Israel issue as a “defensive measure” to hide the fact that they are motivated by a more selfish concern. Lieberman, who said she strongly supports Kerry because of his positions on church-state issues and stem-cell research, evinced amazement that Jews could support Bush. “I find it unfathomable,” she said.

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