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Looking past Saturday’s presidential caucuses in Michigan, Democratic strategists were predicting this week that the results in the Wolverine State would point the way for the party’s strategy in the general election.

What the Michigan campaign showed, pundits said, was that voters in the center — “white, Catholic men who are disproportionately members of labor unions,” in the words of Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf — will determine who wins the White House in November. The campaign also showed, in searching for those voters, that candidates were eager to avoid stepping into ethnic or other squabbles that diverted them from the main goal.

In particular, Democrats tried hard to avoid antagonizing either Jewish or Arab American voters, both of which are heavily represented in Michigan and play active roles on the national stage. As a result, the Israeli-Arab conflict appeared unlikely to figure as a major issue in the fall campaign.

“Michigan is going to decide [the 2004] election,” said Sheinkopf. “It’s a dress rehearsal for fall.”

The state’s 100,000 Jews constitute 2% of the population and can make up from “5 % to 10% or more of the Democratic caucus electorate,” according to Michigan Democratic Party chairman Mark Brewer. (Since voters have the option of voting by mail or on the Internet before Saturday’s caucus date, Sabbath observance should not dampen Jewish turnout. Brewer said 120,000 people had requested ballots by mail or Internet.)

Meanwhile, the Arab American community, which the 2000 census puts at 115,284 souls but communal officials estimate to be at least twice that figure, was seen as a smaller part of the caucus electorate — 2% to 3%, Brewer estimated — but an even more important factor than the Jews in Michigan’s general election vote.

Given these demographics, and considering how the Arab-Israeli conflict has burned Democrats already, the candidates apparently concluded they had nothing to gain by foregrounding Middle East issues and avoided them.

Kerry and his longtime chief rival, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, have sparred since September over Arab-Israeli issues, when Kerry ripped into Dean for his famous comments, since retracted, that America “ought not to take sides” in Middle East negotiations and calling Hamas terrorists “soldiers.” The remarks damaged Dean’s standing among Jews.

Then, in what rival campaigns considered a counter-pander, Kerry gave a speech at an Arab American Institute summit in October in which he called Israel’s security fence “provocative and counterproductive” and “a barrier to peace,” cheering Arabs and perplexing someJews. Finally, Kerry antagonized Jewish communal leaders by naming former president Jimmy Carter and former secretary of state James Baker in a list of possible Middle East envoys in a December speech at the Council on Foreign Relations; both men are disliked for what many consider their pro-Arab views.

But Kerry’s counter-pander, if it was that, hasn’t generated a backlash among Jews, because the senator benefited from the Bush campaign’s backchannel assaults on the pro-Israel bonafides of Dean, according to some observers.

“The biggest favor the Bush team could have done for John Kerry is setting up Howard Dean as the bogeyman, so that Kerry is now the savior,” said David Luchins, a former aide to the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Days before Michigan’s February 7 Democratic caucus, the Jewish community appeared to be throwing most of its support to Kerry, with a smaller chunk going to retired general Wesley Clark, local Democrats said. Kerry’s moves didn’t gain him much with the state’s Arab American community. Observers said that community was sticking with Dean, with Clark in second place, despite Dean’s over all freefall locally; a Detroit News poll released Tuesday showed Kerry with 56% to Dean’s 13% among likely caucus voters, a stark reversal from a month ago.

In a January 16 Zogby poll, Dean drew 36% of the Arab American vote nationally while Kerry drew 6%. That hadn’t changed much, according to the Michigan regional director of the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee, Imad Hamad, who told the Forward that Kerry hurt himself with Arab Americans by attacking Dean for his remarks. Kerry “seems to be giving rhetoric,” Hamad said, while Dean’s anti-Washington message resonates.

In Michigan, as elsewhere, Kerry’s strategy was to appeal to as wide a cross-section of the electorate as possible, according to his advisers, while sending out emissaries to make personal appeals to both communities. In earlier contests, “we won every demographic group: young/old, women/men, rich/poor,” said a Kerry strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We’re not looking at [Michigan] as a niche play.”

With Arab American support for President Bush falling drastically because of objections to the Iraq war and some of the homeland security measures he instituted after the September 11 attacks, Democrats don’t have to worry much about the Arab vote, observers said.

“If you’re a Democratic nominee, and you’re strategizing, this is a slam-dunk,” said Adam Scheingate, a political scientist at University of California Berkeley. “To get the Arab vote, all you have to do is talk about the Patriot Act.”

Kerry’s campaign sent the candidate’s brother Cameron Kerry, who is a convert to Judaism, to Michigan the week before the vote to do outreach to the Jewish community, while sending Bill Shaheen, his New Hampshire chairman, who is an Arab American, to Dearborn to meet with Arab American leaders.

Cameron Kerry, whose wife comes from Detroit’s Jewish suburbs, told the Forward that he would be campaigning in the Jewish community with the help of his in-laws, Anne and Joe Weinman. His father-in-law, winningly, is active in the Jewish War Veterans of America.

Dean was looking for a strong showing in delegate-rich Michigan to revive his faltering campaign, but he was not seeking to appeal to Arab American voters on Middle East issues, Dean advisers said. Dean’s national campaign co-chairman, Steve Grossman, told the Forward that in Michigan Dean was portraying himself as “the candidate of political empowerment,” especially for “disenfranchised people.”

“Jewish voters are just as concerned about health care and fairness as any other voter,” Grossman said.

Dean was likely to gain the most support among African Americans, on college campuses and in ultraliberal bastions such as Ann Arbor, local Democrats said. Dean had some support among Jews, but the “dustup” over his Middle East remarks hurt him. “Dean makes people nervous,” said one pro-Israel Democrat, speaking on condition of anonymity. But the one Dean supporter anyone could identify among Jewish elected officials, State Rep. Andy Meisner, said that while Dean “caught a lot of guff in the Jewish community, it’s important to note he retracted that statement, and when he had the opportunity to repeat it at an Arab American Chamber of Commerce meeting, he didn’t.”

As for Clark, according to one of his top Jewish supporters, State Senator Gilda Jacobs, “I don’t think he’ll be embarrassed. I think he’ll see stronger numbers than everyone expects.”

Another trend seen around the country also is evident in Michigan: The pro-Israel Democrat said he has been raising a lot of political money — for President Bush. He said that unless Democrats start formulating their foreign policy positions in strong language, they stand to lose more supporters.

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