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Obama’s Still a Tough Sell in South Florida

A panel discussion on the issues that matter to Jewish voters and which way they’ll vote in this year’s presidential election quickly descended into a harsh criticism of the lack of understanding of the challenges Barack Obama faces winning over the “condo” vote of older South Florida voters, a potentially key group in a battleground state.

“We need to recognize that there is a problem,” said State Sen. Steven Geller, the Florida state Senate minority leader.

Geller and his colleague, state Senator Nan H. Rich, told a crowd of about 150 people attending a discussion the National Jewish Democratic Council organized of a hostile environment in which a mob mentality has taken hold. The problem is primarily among older residents living in condominium communities and more religious voters in Broward, Dade and south Palm Beach counties, where most of the region’s Jewish population lives.

Interpretations that Obama’s struggles to win over Jewish voters is due to Jewish support for Republican John McCain ignore what they described as an anti-Obama reality on the ground.

Rep. Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat and key early Obama backer, “has almost been attacked” in strongholds of his South Florida district, Geller said.

Rich told a similar story of Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey being verbally assaulted when he came down to promote Obama.

“He walked away shocked,” said Rich, who faults misinformation campaigns by groups such as the Republican Jewish Council and debunked rumors spread via the Internet about Obama being Muslim, not saluting the American flag or being anti-Israel.

Obama’s support in polls is at the low-end of the historical curve of Jewish support for Democratic candidates, and especially low for Democrats since the early 1990s, according to pollsters Mark Mellman and Anna Greenberg. But Obama’s difficulties are hardly limited to Jewish voters. The pollsters and other panelist noted that Obama has generally drawn less support among white voters and older voters.

Obama supporters have had some success countering what they view as inaccurate information in small groups, but “when there is 300 people in a room they feed off each other and don’t want to listen to us,” said Geller, adding that the misinformation festers in these communities.

Rich urged Obama to spend time in South Florida doing a “condo tour” to dispel the misinformation and help these residents grow more comfortable with him.

Appearances by Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, who remains popular, on behalf of McCain and the lack of Obama surrogates of comparable stature have exacerbated the problem.

“We probably don’t have anybody of that stature down touring,” said Geller.

Obama’s selection of Joseph Biden as his vice presidential running mate may make a dent because of the Delaware senator’s long-time support for the Jewish community. But even that likely isn’t enough.

“Senator [Hillary] Clinton and Bill Clinton might be the only people who could make a difference,” he said.

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