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Battle for Jewish Votes In a Florida Race That Threatens To Oust Incumbent

A race in one of the country’s most heavily Jewish congressional districts is pitting an incumbent Jewish Democrat against a rising Republican star.

Running in Florida’s 22nd district, Republican Allen West raised more money in the second quarter of 2010 than any other congressional challenger, according to Politico. West, a former Army lieutenant colonel who enjoys the support of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement, is mounting a serious challenge to two-term Democratic incumbent, Rep. Ron Klein.

Meanwhile, both candidates have been stressing their strong support for Israel in the battle for the votes of the more than 100,000 Jewish residents of the South Florida district, which stretches along the Atlantic coast through Broward and Palm Beach counties.

The two candidates first faced off in the 2008 congressional election, when West finished 9 percentage points behind Klein. This time around, with anti-incumbent sentiment running high, experts predict the outcome could be much closer. The website Real Clear Politics is calling the race a toss-up.

West, who is African American, established a national reputation with a speech in which he called for Americans to organize for “restoring our liberty and fighting back against a tyrannical government.” Video of the speech has since been viewed more than two million times on YouTube.

Supporters of West see his military background as an asset. West first came to prominence following a 2003 incident in Iraq in which he fired his pistol beside the head of an Iraqi detainee during an interrogation. He explained his action as an effort to extract information from the detainee to thwart an anticipated attack against him and his troops. Ultimately, West was fined $5,000 and resigned from the Army with full benefits. After the incident became public, West’s case became a conservative cause célèbre, with many members of Congress rallying around him.

West’s tough talk on terrorism and his rhetoric about “a class war” between “a producing class” and “an entitlement class” have resonated with conservatives.

Democrats argue that local voters will be taken aback by West’s views, suggesting that his national profile among conservatives will not necessarily translate into votes in the district. But given the tough national climate for Democrats and the fact that West won 45% of the vote in 2008, the district is now seen as competitive, putting Klein on the defensive.

It’s certainly going to be an expensive race. West raised $1.4 million in the second quarter of 2010, compared to the $511,000 brought in during the same period by Klein. As of the most recent campaign filings, West had $2.2 million on hand, while Klein had a war chest of $2.9 million.

Klein, 53, was part of the Democratic wave of 2006 that brought dozens of new faces to Congress. Since then, Klein has worked with colleagues across the aisle on issues ranging from stem-cell research and Medicare fraud legislation to Iran sanctions, and he is currently stressing his bipartisan bona fides.

In recent weeks, Klein has tried to portray himself as the moderate candidate in the race, while depicting West as an extremist. To this end, Klein has posted select clips from West’s public appearances on YouTube. One titled “Allen West questions President Obama’s citizenship” shows the candidate saying, “I would ask him one simple question: ‘What passports did you use to go to Pakistan,’” referring to a college-age trip Obama had taken. West has denied that he was questioning Obama’s citizenship.

“In my race, there’s a very clear choice between two different approaches, two different philosophies,” Klein said in an interview with the Forward in West Palm Beach. Klein stressed that he is not worried about suffering at the polls as a result of anti-incumbent sentiment.

The 49-year-old West, on the other hand, is banking on voters’ desire for new faces.

“The political atmosphere in this country has changed,” he said in a phone interview. “People are looking for principled leaders.” West has aggressively sought to link Klein to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “We have to make sure that the right legislations get on the House floor, not the legislations of Nancy Pelosi and all her political cronies and puppets who, you know, Ron Klein is one of them,” West told the Forward.

Both Klein and West have spent time touring synagogues, Jewish community centers and retirement communities. In their remarks to Jewish voters, they have reminisced about their trips to Israel (Klein just returned earlier this month, West was there last year) and stressed their commitment to its security.

In Congress, Klein has taken a relatively hawkish approach toward issues relating to Israel and the Middle East. He was active in pushing for Iran sanctions legislation, has been among those leading the call to investigate the Turkish group behind the Gaza flotilla and recently questioned American military aid to Lebanon in the wake of the recent deadly clash on the Israeli-Lebanese border. He has also, on occasion, distanced himself from Obama’s policies toward Israel.

“I criticized President Obama at the time I thought there was an over-reaction to the settlement issue,” Klein said, adding that now he believes Israeli-American relations are back on the right track.

On the Middle East, West has sounded an even more hawkish note. Speaking to Jewish voters, he has explained that any two-state solution should consist of Israel and Jordan and that by establishing an independent Palestinian state “all you will be doing is creating a terrorist state.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at [email protected]

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