As Super Tuesday looms, Sen. John McCain’s campaign is counting on his sharp attacks on the Christian right this week to boost his prospects among moderate, Northeastern Republican voters — including many Jews.
“No candidate for Congress or for the Senate, let alone for president, has dared to tell it like it is in the midst of a campaign as John McCain has had the guts to do,” said Sid Green, an Arizona Democrat who is coordinating Jewish outreach efforts for McCain.
After pounding GOP front-runner George W. Bush for his appearance before South Carolina’s Bob Jones University — an evangelical college that has been accused of spreading hostile theology toward blacks, gays and Catholics — McCain on Monday blasted the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. He branded the evangelists “agents of intolerance,” likening them to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and New York firebrand Rev. Al Sharpton.
The next day he went a step further, calling Falwell and Robertson an “evil influence” on the Republican Party.
Robertson had made recorded phone calls on behalf of Bush attacking McCain’s positions on religious issues.
“He showed how the alleged Republican leadership have kowtowed over the years to let Robertson and Falwell be the tail that wagged the dog,” said Green of McCain.
Experts agree that McCain’s strategy could affect Tuesday’s primary in New York, where he and Bush are locked in a statistical dead heat. McCain has rallied to pull ahead of the Texas governor, 47 to 43 percent, according to a Marist College poll. Last month Bush held a 43 to 41 edge.
“If McCain is going to play anywhere, he’ll have the strongest appeal in a place like New York,” said Marist pollster Lee Miringoff. “There is a very low religious right population among Republicans in New York.”
But the tactic could backfire. “He probably made a mistake by setting up moral equivalency between Farrakhan and Sharpton and Pat Robertson,” said one national Jewish Republican activist. “Farrakhan represents rabid anti-Semitism, but Pat Robertson is only guilty of being a political conservative.”
Gilbert Kahn, a professor of political science at Kean University in New Jersey, said McCain’s statements could be construed as desperation. “This is the kind of rhetoric that doesn’t indicate the type of moderation that Jews would like to see, even when they disagree. He’s trying to reposition the party all by himself, which is a difficult thing.”
In a clear sign that McCain’s tactic had an impact, Bush sent a letter of apology for the Bob Jones appearance to John Cardinal O’Connor.
“With Bush’s apology and his various statements regarding his strong belief in religious inclusion and against religious intolerance and bigotry, he has helped himself,” said the GOP activist. “The one who has hurt himself has been McCain, who has not come across as gracious in the face of Bush’s desire to set the record straight.”
Democrats tried to stoke the controversy this week. Rep. Charles Rangel, the dean of New York’s congressional delegation, called on Bush to apologize to blacks and Jews as well as Catholics because of the Bob Jones speech and Bush campaign attacks on McCain supporter Warren Rudman, who is Jewish. Rudman has said he’s been subjected to anti-Semitic taunts.
While the percentage of Jewish Republican voters in New York is small, some Jewish leaders see the holy war in the campaign as possibly bolstering McCain’s chances of capturing Jewish support in the general election should he win the GOP nomination.
“McCain has put himself on the side of those who are sensitive to and understand the concerns about the Christian right,” said one national Jewish leader, speaking on condition of anonymity. “That puts him in stark contrast with Bush. I don’t think people see Bush as a raving Bible thumper, but the debate raises questions about who George W. Bush is, his character, his views, his outlook. That’s what McCain has succeeded in doing.”
Bob Jones University has no record of espousing anti-Semitism, according to the Anti-Defamation League. “The concerns we have are that they have exhibited racist attitudes in terms of interracial dating, that they have been anti-Catholic and they have been homophobic,” said Gail Gans, an ADL researcher.
But the Bob Jones issue comes on the heels of a string of Bush Jewish campaign flaps, including his call for extremist Pat Buchanan to stay in the GOP and his suggestion that Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam would qualify for federal social service funds under his charitable choice program. An adviser to the Bush campaign recently singled out three Jewish writers in a magazine article, saying they had “holes in their souls.”
Political consultant Hank Sheinkopf predicted that many Jews will vote for McCain as “a way for them to attack the Christian religious fundamentalism that seems to have overtaken a large segment of the Republican Party and has been a staple since Reagan.”
“McCain is giving them a reason to cast a protest vote against Bush,” he said. “What he is trying to do is make himself almost a conservative centrist. The question is, does it wash?”
McCain, who has sent the Bush campaign reeling with wins in New Hampshire, Michigan and his home state of Arizona but suffered defeats in South Carolina, Virginia, Washington and North Dakota, is devoting significant resources in New York. Supporters were to hold a fund-raiser Wednesday night at Mendy’s restaurant intended to further the Jews for McCain movement here.
The event was coordinated by Leonard Guttman, vice president of the city’s Health and Hospitals Corp. who has close ties to Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Guttman’s participation has fueled speculation that Giuliani, who has endorsed Bush, is keeping his bases covered in case McCain wins the nomination.
“What drew me to John McCain was his lonely stand against Pat Buchanan, and his support of the Israeli MIAs,” said Guttman, who became chairman of the Jewish Coalition For McCain one month ago. Guttman predicted McCain’s attacks on the Christian right would help him in New York. “I don’t think too many Jewish Republicans are in love with Pat Reobertson.”
Bush, however, because of his favored status can count on solid support in New York among some of the most prominent fund-raisers and national Republican Jewish figures.
“Bush has more support among Orthodox Jews,” said Milton Balkany, a politically active rabbi from Borough Park and a Republican.
He said McCain would lose some Orthodox votes because of his stated opposition to clemency for Israel spy Jonathan Pollard. Bush has said only that as president he would review the matter.
Rabbi Balkany also said that Bush was a stronger opponent of gay rights. “McCain said something to the effect of one day having a homosexual president, which Bush never would say.”
Jacob Stein, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a close friend of the Bush family, said Bush was committed to a secure Israel.
“I’m very much aware of his concerns,” said Stein, who lives in Great Neck, L.I. “I had a meeting with him that confirms that he would be just as close with Israel as his father. I expect he will get a larger number of Jewish votes than customarily goes to a Republican candidate.”