Gov. George W. Bush may be cruising toward the Republican nomination and a November showdown with Vice President Al Gore, but he is expected to face an uphill battle for Jewish support.
The persistent attacks on Bush and the GOP’s religious fundamentalist wing by Arizona Sen. John McCain seem to have backfired, energizing Bush forces in nine of 13 primary or caucus states. But the assault may have succeeded in redefining Bush as a tool of the party’s right wing, damaging his appeal to Jews in the general election.
Jewish Republicans in New York, according to exit polls, overwhelmingly chose McCain over Bush, 58 percent to 28 percent, signaling apparent approval for the Arizona challenger’s gambit.
“The national Jewish vote is Al Gore’s to lose,” said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn.
Gore won a resounding vote of confidence from New York Jews Tuesday, capturing 62 percent of the vote against former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley’s 38 percent.
“Bush is in deep trouble with Jews, Hispanics and blacks,” said Kahn. “Maybe he could recover with Jewish voters by putting a Jew on the ticket. Short of that, I don’t see what he could do.”
Saddled with memories of his father’s Mideast policies, questions about his experience and understanding of foreign affairs, and hurt among minority voters by his sharp turn to the right, Bush “will make an effort to get them back,” Kahn said. “For Jewish voters, the Israel thing might be easier because of the people he has around him, like [former assistant defense secretary] Richard Perle.”
Gerald Benjamin, a political science professor at the SUNY New Paltz, predicted that Bush would have no difficulty in capturing the third of Jewish votes that traditionally go to Republican candidates.
“It’s a long time until the election,” said Benjamin. “He will move to the center and give some reassurance.”
Political historian Allan Lichtman of American University, an expert in presidential prognostication, said Bush’s weakness with minority voters — and Gore’s strength — will pose a “major problem” for the Texas governor as he retunes his campaign for the national electorate.
But the wide gap in domestic issues and the perception that Bush has made his peace with the Christian right, he said, will make any effort to win over significant numbers of Jews very difficult.
Whether or not the Jewish vote will matter depends on factors that cannot be predicted eight months in advance — including how close the vote may be in key states with major Jewish populations such as California, Illinois and Florida.
Although McCain’s labeling of fundamentalist Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as “evil influences” may have endeared him to Republican moderates and independent voters who supported him in open primary states, conventional wisdom views the tactic as a monumental backfire that galvanized the Bush vote.
Some say the fundamentalist groups may even benefit in the short term from the tongue lashing.
“Basically, McCain has given them a new lease on life,” said John Green, a University of Akron political scientist who studies the religious right. “Organizationally they were having major problems. This doesn’t solve their problems, but it provides something to unite them.”
Green also predicted that Bush can reclaim some of the image of moderation he lost during the brutal South Carolina primary campaign, when his visit to Bob Jones University generated unwanted nationwide headlines.
“He can do it, but it’s going to take effort on his part after his self-inflicted wounds. His apology on the Bob Jones issue was a step in the right direction,” Green said. “He’ll have to start stressing the issues that appeal to a broad range of voters, not just a single segment. There’s evidence he’s doing that now, with his increased focus on education — something that could help him reclaim his centrist credentials.”
McCain’s future in the race was in doubt Wednesday. While he promised to continue his “crusade,” the nearly impossible odds facing his candidacy and the increased difficulty in raising funds after Tuesday’s losses made it likely he would quit.
But to a group of Jewish McCain supporters who gathered at his New York headquarters on Tuesday night, the senator had taken a brave stand and appealed to unconventional supporters.
“Normally I’m a Democrat, but I switched because of McCain,” said Mark Frisch, a telecommunications executive from Riverdale. One of about half a dozen yarmulke-wearing men at the Roosevelt Hotel, most of them gathered by Leonard Guttman, coordinator of Jews for McCain, Frisch called McCain a “mensch.”
“He is the most refreshing candidate around,” said Frisch, sipping Coke from a cocktail glass as a band played “Anchors Aweigh” and other military anthems in tribute to the numerous veterans in the room there to salute the one-time Vietnam POW. “This is a man who believes what he says, which is very rare among politicians.”
Guttman, assistant vice president of the city’s Health and Hospitals Corp., said Jewish supporters of McCain were unlikely to switch to Bush. “A lot of people have difficulty with his flirtation with extremist elements,” said Guttman, an Orthodox rabbi. “And people remember some of the things that happened during his father’s administration.”
“I would rather vote for Gore than Bush,” said Frisch.
A few blocks away at the Women’s Republican Club, Bush’s New York headquarters, there was a far more subdued Jewish presence. Three young chasidic men stood quietly in the back of the room as Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani spoke. “We don’t give interviews,” said one of the men.
On the Democratic side, the Associated Press reported that Bill Bradley was expected to quit the race Thursday and endorse Gore. Bradley failed to win a single primary.
“He lacked the personal appeal, his message is a very hard one to deliver in prosperous times, and the country is not a liberal place,” said Benjamin of SUNY New Paltz. “Jews are slower to realize that than others because they are predispositioned to liberalism.” Jews and blacks injected much of the energy in Bradley’s campaign.
Although Gore insisted he took not a single vote for granted, the vice president seemed confident of his Jewish support when he addressed members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on the day before the primary. He joked about recently becoming a grandfather, and fielded only four questions from the audience from people he recognized.
Gore has declined to speak to the Jewish media and ignored requests for an interview as he left UJA-Federation headquarters.But Gore, who has a reputation for being stiff, clearly won over members of the audience — who laughed at his jokes and gave him a standing ovation — by force of personality.
“He’s not stiff-necked and he’s very handsome, very sincere,” said Myrna Fishbein of Manhattan. “I was glad to see him for myself. I felt the newspapers do not do him justice.”
With reporting by staff writer Stewart Ain.