Perhaps the sharpest exchange in Monday night's presidential debate signaled that, once again, Republicans hope they can peel away crucial Jewish votes from a Democratic presidential candidate. But this time, Mitt Romney appears to think he has fresh cause for optimism.
At one point in Monday's debate, Mr. Romney accused President Obama of taking an “apology tour” in the Middle East while not visiting Israel. Mr. Obama, visibly angry, called the charge, “the biggest whopper that’s been told during the course of this campaign.”
Though the Jewish community is not very large – probably not much more than 2 percent of the total American population – the Jewish vote is important because it is significant in Florida, Nevada, as well as other crucial swing states.
Every four years, the Republicans think they will make inroads with Jewish voters in Florida, says Susan MacManus, a professor at the University of South Florida. “And every four years it does not come to fruition.” Democrats have won at least 76 percent of the Jewish vote in every presidential contest since the Clinton administration.
But Romney's offensive against Obama Monday suggests that he is counting on two things: Not only is he a steadfast supporter of Israel (at a time when the president's commitment to Israel has been questioned), but he is also personal friends with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is trying to remain neutral.
“Historically, no Democrat has been elected to the White House with anything less than 70 percent of the Jewish vote,” says Andrew Polsky, a political scientist at Hunter College in New York and author of the book, “Elusive Victories, the American Presidency at War.”
“What Romney is trying to do is to whittle way at the margin.”
How Romney is trying to whittle away was apparent in the debate on Monday night at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.
In mentioning a trip Obama made to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iraq, Romney said: “And then in those nations, and on Arabic TV, you said that America had been dismissive and derisive. You said that on occasion, America had dictated to other nations.”
“And by the way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to the other nations. And by the way, they noticed you skipped Israel,” said Romney.
Obama responded by calling it a lie. He noted that he had visited Israel four years ago.
“I didn’t take donors. I didn’t attend fundraisers. I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself of the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable,” he said.
Aside from raising doubts about Obama’s loyalty to Israel, Romney also was trying to score points with Christian fundamentalists, says Professor Polsky.
“Christian fundamentalists are strongly pro-Israel,” he says. “Romney has problems stimulating his Republican base so anything where he can get a strong turnout of them on Election Day is important.”
Four years ago, Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote, according to the Jewish Virtual Library. However, winning the Jewish vote does not guarantee victory. Al Gore lost in 2000 while carrying 79 percent of the Jewish vote.
“Jewish voters lean Democratic, but they are not a captive group,” says Polsky, noting that other groups, such as African-Americans, vote for Democrats even more consistently, so there is little incentive for Republicans to appeal to them.
One indication that Romney has made at least some inroads: He is getting significant support from Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate, who is the largest single donor to the Republicans. Mr. Adelson, who is politically conservative, is a supporter of Mr. Netanyahu, the leader of the conservative Likud party.
Romney has been friends with Netanyahu since the 1970s, when the two worked as consultants in Boston. They have since remained in close contact, according to press reports.
The largest area for Jewish voters is New York and New Jersey. However, Obama is leading in both states by significant margins. However, in Florida, the race is very close, according to recent polls.
“In Florida, the Jewish vote does matter,” says Lee Miringoff, director at the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “We’re talking about moving a few voters.”
The debate over foreign affairs resonated deeply in Florida for a number of reasons, says Professor MacManus.
“Florida has a large number of senior citizens who are concerned about the drop in respect for America as well as a large number of active-duty military and retired military,” she says.
But Romney's charge had been well documented before Monday, she adds. “I don’t think that changed a lot of minds based on that exchange.”
On Tuesday, Ed Koch, former mayor of New York City and an influential voice within the American Jewish community, said he was satisfied with Obama’s support of Israel. In the past, Mr. Koch has been critical of Obama's Middle East policy, and Romney had been trying to get Koch's support.
“It would be very helpful if the President issues a public statement that the U.S. will respond militarily against Iran, if that country launches an attack upon Israel,” he wrote in a blog.
But he said he would do whatever he could do to reelect Obama, since he favors the president’s positions on domestic issues.