Obama struggles to attract wavering Jewish voters

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

Baz Ratner/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

One of those is Emily Cahn, a sophomore at George Washington University in Washington, who plans to sit down with her grandparents in Boca Raton, Fla. "I originally voted for Hillary [Rodham Clinton], but I'm now an ardent supporter [of Obama]," she says. "He's very competent and has the mind-set to take our country in the right direction."

The challenge Mr. Obama faces in Jewish enclaves such as south Florida stems partly from the fact that voters just don't know him, which has made it easier for the rumors to stick, observers say.

"There isn't the familiarity and long record in public life," so there is anxiety, Dr. Wald says. Many Jews worry he might harbor anti-Semitic sentiments they've heard from some other African-American leaders, and he "has a middle name that sounds Muslim, though he is a Christian."

Falsehoods, such as Obama being a secret Muslim or having ties to Hamas, have spread so widely that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg – who is Jewish and an independent – publicly denounced the smears during a June visit to Florida.

Last month, a phone poll sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) stirred anger among Jews in battleground states. The poll included questions asking voters' response to several negative statements about Obama. A writer for the New Republic who lives in Michigan and got the call described it as "ugly."

Matthew Brooks, the RJC executive director, insists the characterization of the poll as negative is not accurate: "Our survey was like any other that does test messages. We tested messages to understand why Obama has problems among Jewish voters," he says.

The Democrat's problems, Mr. Brooks adds, relate to "his positions on Iran,... his flip-flopping on the issue of Jerusalem ... his circle of advisers."

Brooks looks for the Jewish "undecided" to move more than usual into the Republican camp. Such support has inched up in each presidential election, from 11 percent in 1992 to 19 percent in 2000 and 24 percent in 2004.

McCain is doing better than previous Republican nominees because he's been seen as a moderate, says Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, in Washington. But Mr. Forman believes the vice presidential selection is already changing that. "The sheen of being moderate is going to be dissipated by the Sarah Palin pick," he predicts.

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