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Can Bush Cement His Inroads among Jewish Voters?

In recent decades, few demographic groups have voted more reliably Democratic than Jews. In fact, the last Republican Presidential candidate to claim a plurality of Jewish votes was Warren G. Harding in 1920. White House strategists are convinced, however, that change is afoot in 2004. A shared foreign policy agenda, they claim, will trump long-standing disagreements on social issues and Jewish dismay at the clout of Christian conservatives in the GOP.

The reason: George W. Bush is widely considered the most pro-Israel President since Harry S Truman, who first recognized the Jewish state's right to exist. That view has only been reinforced by the toppling of Israel's archenemy, Saddam Hussein, and the heat on Syria and Iran. In New York, the state with the largest Jewish population, 71% of Jewish voters approve of the President's handling of Iraq -- compared with 66% of the overall electorate, according to an Apr. 7 Marist College survey. What's more, polls show Bush running best among Jews under 35.

Few observers think the President can win a majority of historically liberal Jewish voters. But if he comes close to the 38% that Ronald Reagan racked up in 1980 -- the high-water mark for recent Republicans -- Bush would probably doom Democrats' chances in the key swing state of Florida and complicate their efforts to win Illinois and Pennsylvania. "I think if the election were held today, he would beat Reagan's numbers," says Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress.

Voting numbers are not the only figures that interest Republicans. Although Jewish Americans make up a mere 2% of the population, in years past they have accounted for more than half of the Democrats' big-ticket donations. Now, Republicans think they have a chance to tap into that fund-raising stream. "The Jewish community is interested in strong U.S.-Israeli relations, and as they see those relations flourish, they've shown their support," says Representative Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.), the only Jewish Republican in the House and chief deputy whip.

A strong pro-Israel position also plays well with right-wing Christians, whose Biblical fundamentalism makes them staunch supporters of the Jewish state. "For the White House, supporting Israel is a twofer," concedes one Democratic strategist. Still, many Jews remain suspicious of the social agenda of the President's Religious Right allies on issues ranging from prayer in schools to abortion. And Bush may be forced to moderate his support for Israel. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who put his political future on the line to back the war in Iraq, is prodding the President to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. Pushing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to make concessions could undercut Bush's popularity among Jews. Perhaps mindful of that, Republicans such as House Majority Whip Roy D. Blunt (R-Mo.) have joined prominent Dems in urging Bush to oppose any peace deal that doesn't require Palestinians to forsake terrorism before imposing requirements on Israel.

Democratic activists remain convinced that, in the end, Jewish voters will come home to the party of their roots, particularly if 2000 Vice-Presidential nominee Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) is on the ticket. Republicans who dream of a realignment of the Jewish vote are "smoking something," says Ira N. Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Despite such bravado, the modest ambitions of White House political guru Karl Rove should not be dismissed. Turning an incremental increase in Jewish support into one of the building blocks of a Bush majority is far more than a pipe dream. In fact, it's a potential nightmare for the Democrats. Republican strategists consider California liberal Barbara Boxer one of the most endangered Democratic senators facing reelection in 2004. The trouble is finding the right opponent. Ex-Governor Pete Wilson tops the GOP list in early polls, but White House officials fret about his reputation for racially tinged politics. They prefer U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin, a Hispanic. While Marin is not well known back home, the Administration is helping raise her profile: On Apr. 27, she is scheduled to visit California as part of her national lobbying effort on behalf of President Bush's $726 billion tax cut. Boxer strongly opposes the package. George W. Bush won't take "no" for an answer. Despite Ohio Senator George V. Voinovich's insistence that he will never -- ever -- support a tax cut bigger than $350 billion, the Prez keeps trying to change the Republican's mind. The latest gambit: an Apr. 23 trip by Bush to Ohio. Voinovich says he'll be honored to welcome the President but won't change his mind until hell freezes over. Voinovich isn't the only lawmaker being targeted by the Administration. The White House has dispatched top lieutenants to 17 states -- including 13 Presidential battlegrounds -- to try to increase pressure on balking senators, including moderate Democrats John Breaux of Louisiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. But the strategy may not do much to get the full tax cut passed. Breaux, for one, says Bush won't win any votes by treating Congress like Iraq.

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