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Obama struggles to attract wavering Jewish voters

False rumors have tempered enthusiasm from this slice of the Democratic base.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer / October 8, 2008

Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama met with Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem in July. Both campaigns are targeting Jewish voters, a group that turns out in high numbers.

Baz Ratner/Reuters

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Few groups in America vote more heavily Democratic than the Jewish community. But Sen. Barack Obama and his backers are scrambling to hold on to that traditionally lopsided support – particularly in swing states such as Florida, Nevada, and Ohio, where the 2008 race remains a tossup and every vote counts.

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While Republican nominee John McCain's strong pro-Israel and antiterrorism stances are widely known, many Jews feel uneasy about his opponent. A campaign of rumors about Senator Obama has helped spur doubts.

In a national survey released Sept. 25 by the nonpartisan American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Democratic nominee had the support of 57 percent of Jewish adults, 12 percent less than Sen. John Kerry at the same time in the 2004 campaign. Senator McCain had 30 percent, with 13 percent still undecided.

"What is striking is the number of people who say they are undecided," says Kenneth Wald, professor of political science at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "That suggests a real softness in the level of support for Obama among some Jews."

Strategists on both sides see several states in which Jewish votes could be key: Florida, Nevada, Ohio, and perhaps Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

In Florida, both campaigns are targeting the Jewish community, which is 4 percent of the population but turns out at the polls at a higher rate than other voters. The Obama campaign recently launched six Jewish community leadership committees to send nearly a thousand Jewish leaders throughout the state to visit senior complexes and community centers.

Younger supporters are joining in what is billed as "the Great Schlep" – heading off during Columbus Day weekend Oct. 10-13 to visit grandparents in Florida and other swing states to persuade them to vote for Obama.

Comedian Sarah Silverman of Comedy Central fame helped launch the Great Schlep with an irreverent Internet video in which she proclaims, "If Barack Obama doesn't win this election, I am going to blame the Jews." The video "has been seen by millions and more than 13,000 people have signed up on our Facebook group," says Mik Moore, codirector of Jewsvote.org, a new political action committee that initiated the project. More than 100 people have committed to travel this weekend.

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