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What’s the Matter With Florida?

It is hard year for all Democrats, nothing new about that.

But if a Jewish incumbent can’t pull it off in South Florida, it could be a sign things are really bad.

Three of four Florida Jewish lawmakers are up for re-election. The fourth, Ted Deutch, who represents the most Jewish county in the U.S., just got elected in a special election and will not be challenged until 2012.

Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, an up and coming Democratic star, has it safe in Florida’s 20th district. But the two other Jewish Florida Democrats, Ron Klein and Alan Grayson, are in trouble.

Trailing in the polls is probably the only thing the two Jewish Floridians have in common. Klein is the classic South Florida Democrat – hawkish on Israel, mainstream on most other issues. Grayson, on the other hand, is a staunch liberal, known for his colorful use of language when describing his rivals. Klein is running in Florida’s 22nd district, which includes the costal parts of Broward and Palm Beach Counties and is home to some 100,000 Jews, many of whom are retirees. In 2008, Klein beat his Republican rival Alan West, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, with a 10% margin. Now, West is back and according to the latest poll, he is taking the lead. Klein has found himself defending his pro-Israel credentials in light of West’s hard line rhetoric on fighting terror. Now Klein’s campaign is trying to portray West as extreme and has been highlighting his alleged financial problems. West has been calling Ron Klein Nancy Pelosi’s “mama’s boy.”

Florida commentators say the race will go down to the wire, with both candidates pouring huge sums into last-minute TV ad buys. Here, West has a significant advantage with the amount of cash he has on hand.

Further north, in Orlando, Alan Grayson is facing a different kind of race. Grayson is not trying to put on any moderate mask as he faces off with conservative Republican Dan Webster. Most recently, Grayson ran ads calling his rival “Taliban Dan,” a move that led Webster to cancel planned debates with Grayson citing what he called “lack of decorum” on behalf of his rival.

Grayson is trailing Webster in the polls, but Democrats believe that the presence of a third candidate representing the Tea Party movement on the ballot could draw voters away from the Republican candidate.

The Klein and the Grayson races are worth watching even for those less invested in the future of Jewish lawmakers. The outcome of these congressional elections could give some clues regarding the way forward for the Democrats. If Grayson pulls it off, it could be a sign that Democrats would be best served by taking their gloves off. A Klein victory would suggest moderation still works with voters. And what if both lose? Well, that would only mean that it’s a real tough year for Democrats.

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