Muslim vote and Bush converts

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The intersection of Joseph Campau and Caniff streets is like a lot of others in this Detroit suburb, a collection of Polish groceries and dollar stores punctuated by the odd fast food joint. But it is different as well. Five times a day the Islamic call to prayer rings out over loudspeakers signaling to the thousands of Muslims who live here that it's time to face Mecca and pray. The calls have rattled this small town, which for decades was home to working class ethnic Poles. It has undergone massive changes in recent years. You still may have a hard time talking to the residents who will wave you away dismissively if you don't speak their native Polish. But increasingly, the babushkas of the long-time residents are juxtaposed against the long veils of the new, and the Slavic accents are offset by the guttural tones of Arabic.

Around the corner, St. Ladislaus Catholic Church and its annexes dominate the block and speak to the town's history, but across the street in a small, inconspicuous, and shabby building the Al-Islah Community Center says volumes about its future.

Interestingly enough, it was buildings like the Al-Islah Center that gave Republicans and George W. Bush great hopes for Michigan four years ago, before it eventually went for Al Gore. Today its calls rattle the Bush campaign in this state and others.

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The Muslim vote long fell fairly reliably into the Democratic column, but that changed in 2000. A combination of perceived slights by the Gore campaign and active wooing by Mr. Bush led to a break in the conventional wisdom. Major Muslim community groups actually went so far as to endorse Bush in 2000, in large part due to one big issue: racial profiling. On the campaign trail and in the debates, Bush used the issue to talk about his support of the Secret Evidence Repeal Act, a proposal to reverse parts of a Clinton-era law that made it easier for prosecutors to use secret evidence in terrorism cases.

Polls in 2000 showed Muslims favored Bush over Mr. Gore by a wide margin - some showed support in the 90 percent range - and some groups argued that some 60,000 Muslim votes put Bush over the top in Florida.

It's amazing how much can change in four years - years that have included Sept. 11, John Ashcroft, and the Patriot Act. The latest poll by the Council on American-Islamic Relations shows John Kerry with 54 percent of the Muslim vote in the 2004 race, comfortably ahead of Ralph Nader, who garners 26 percent. The president? With a little work he may break out of the single digits with Muslim-American voters.

Abdul Motlib, the president of Hamtramck's Al-Islah, says most of the people who frequent his center don't talk about politics, but when they do, it's clear where they stand. "We are pretty squarely behind the Democrats," he says, estimating that pretty squarely equals about 80 percent support.

The question, of course, is what does all this mean? And at first glance it may not seem like a whole lot. While Mr. Motlib estimates there are 4,000 to 5,000 Muslims in Hamtramck, he quickly adds that he believes there are only 1,000 or so voters among them. Apply that math to the estimated national Muslim population of 5 million, and you end up with something that might look like a bloc and vote like a bloc, but without much of weight behind it.

Even the talk of the impact in Florida seems overstated. Did the Muslim vote deliver Florida to Bush? Maybe, but the results were so close one could make that same argument about any number of constituencies: Nader voters, Cuban expatriates, left-handed badminton players. The real concern for the Bush administration, however lies not in the numbers, but in the trend.

In Washington, where handicapping the presidential race sits just below self-promotion as a favorite pastime, there is a theory about the 2004 campaign, and it goes a something like this: Going into the stretch run of the election season, Bush has the weaker hand. The electorate is so polarized and the 2000 election was so close that most of the famous "advantages of incumbency" do not apply. Everyone in Washington, and even in the great hinterlands beyond, knows a wavering former Bush voter, someone who cast their ballot for the president in 2000, but is not sure about 2004 - or, worse for the administration, someone who is sure they aren't voting for Bush this year. In the last four years he has done something that offends them or taken a stand they cannot abide.

The same can't be said of former Gore voters. The overwhelming majority of them have never warmed to the president or considered him as a serious option. For Bush, in other words, any erosion of support is noteworthy.

Do the 1,000 votes in Hamtramck mean something? Maybe not, especially in Michigan, where the latest poll has John Kerry up by seven points. But every time the call to prayer sounds here, it is a reminder that the Bush campaign must not just try to reach a group of previous supporters but to grow one that now barely exists - Bush converts.

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