Philadelphia — They were there to celebrate George W. Bush and all things Republican, but the New York delegates at the party’s national convention here seemed to be thinking as much about the state’s U.S. Senate race as the presidential duel.
Many in that contingent wore anti-Hillary Clinton buttons. Some appeared even more intent in working to defeat the first lady in her Senate bid than in trying to elect Bush, whom few expect to take New York State in November.
Clinton’s opponent, Long Island Rep. Rick Lazio, arrived Monday in Philadelphia and spoke to the New York delegation Tuesday morning. He was not invited to address the convention, a fact brushed aside by former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato.
“It won’t win him any votes,” D’Amato said.
But others suggested that were he to speak, it might prompt anti-Clinton chants at the First Union Center. Convention organizers have taken pains to avoid attacks on Democrats as part of their attempt to portray a new Republican Party. Under Bush’s direction, and with complaints that the party in recent years has been “hijacked” by the far right, the GOP is seeking a more broad-based appeal, especially to minorities.
Unlike previous Republican conventions, which have devoted an entire night to attacking their Democratic opponent, the name of presumptive Democratic candidate Al Gore was rarely if ever heard from the platform.
The Democrats will hold their convention in two weeks in Los Angeles.
Lazio did not pull any punches in his rousing speech to the hard-core New York faithful.
He told them that he was “effectively running against the White House and the better we do, the worse it’s going to get on the other side.”
“I don’t know about you,” Lazio said, “but I don’t want to be lectured for the next six years by Hillary Rodham Clinton.”
Alan Steinberg, executive director of the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission, observed that although the senatorial race is a New York affair, “it is having a spillover effect on the presidential race” for Jews nationwide.
“A majority of the Jewish community is now aware of what a negative [Hillary Clinton] is for the Jewish community,” he explained.
Steinberg cited Clinton’s “embrace” of the wife of Yasir Arafat following Suha Arafat’s vitriolic speech against Israel, her “premature call for a Palestinian state even before the issue had been negotiated, and her association with her husband, who [in 1996] became the first U.S. president to attempt to interfere in behalf of a political party in Israel’s elections.”
As a result, said Steinberg, Bush has a “greater prospect of gaining a larger portion of the Jewish vote” than the Republicans have in the recent past. He noted that in 1992, the Republican presidential nominee — Bush’s father — received 18 percent of the Jewish vote and that in 1996 Sen. Bob Dole also received less than 20 percent.
Steinberg said he believes the Jewish vote for the Texas governor will be closer to the 32 percent — or perhaps even the 39 percent — Ronald Reagan received in 1984 and 1980, respectively.
“The Democratic Party is no longer the party of Harry Truman or Lyndon Johnson,” he said. “It’s the party of Bill and Hillary Clinton, and that’s a negative for the Jewish community.”
The community comprised only a sprinkling of New York delegates. Indeed, on the first night of the convention, one of the handful of New York Jews who attended either as a delegate, an alternate or a guest asked another, “Where are all the Jews?”
“You’re looking at them,” came the reply.
The two were only half joking because only three or four of the 101 New York delegates here were Jewish.
“We need to do more to stimulate grassroots Jewish interest in the political process,” said Michael Miller, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, who was attending the convention as an observer. “Involvement should be on a multi-tiered level — voter registration, voter turnout and party activism.”
Among the reasons for a decline in political activism in both major political parties, he said, is an “increasing comfort level of Jews in America.”
But Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, insisted that the “Jewish community has never been more visible and had a more vital role in the convention” than this year.
Although he said he did not have a figure on the number of Jewish delegates to the convention — a figure he has had in the past — Brooks said Jews are party chairs in South Dakota and Hawaii, and serve as delegates in the California and Texas delegations.
Brooks said also that 400 to 500 Jews attended the coalition’s reception Sunday, the largest turnout in at least the last four conventions.
Others suggested, however, that the influence of Jews in the party is more behind the scenes than on the convention floor One senior Republican source said that as much as 60 percent of the money raised by the party comes from Jewish supporters.
Steinberg said Bush has “more prominent Jewish fund-raisers than his father did” when he ran for re-election in 1992.
State Sen. Roy Goodman of Manhattan, who said this was his seventh or eighth convention as a delegate, said that as an “ardent leader of the Jewish community in New York, I feel very confident that Jewish interests will be protected by Governor Bush. There is no question he will be sympathetic to Israel because he knows it is our staunchest ally in the world.”
Ken Bricker, a spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, termed the Republican platform “very pro-Israel.”
Of particular note this year, he said, is a paragraph against any unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence, and another that strongly condemns the conviction in Iran of “10 innocent Iranian Jews.”
It also includes Bush’s earlier promise to immediately “begin the process” of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem once he takes office.
Steve Saland of Poughkeepsie, one of the state’s other two Jewish senators — the third, James Lack of Long Island, was not at the convention — said he was pleased that the stridency and divisiveness of earlier Republican conventions would not be replayed this year.
“It was made clear that this was not what George W. Bush was all about, and you can see that in the diversity of outreach that has been a trademark of his terms of office,” Saland said. “He won 70 percent of the vote in Texas and captured the racial and ethnic vote. He’s about inclusion and not exclusion. Traditionally, the Jewish vote has been heavily Democratic, but I believe that this year will be an exception.”
The convention displayed that idea of inclusion on Monday, the first night of the four-day convention, when Rabbi Victor Weissberg, a rabbi from Northbrook, Ill., who told reporters he was still undecided about the presidential race, delivered the invocation.
The evening also featured black gospel singers, as well as children of various ethnic backgrounds who were on hand for a discussion of the evening’s main theme — quality education for all.
Watching the proceedings from a coveted luxury skybox were a handpicked group of nuns, priests, and prominent Catholic leaders and donors who were invited as guests of the Republican National Committee. The National Journal reported that the RNC set aside this skybox as part of its effort to win 10 key states in which Catholics comprise about 40 percent of the vote. Among the battleground states are New Jersey, Missouri, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois.
The move to woo Catholic voters is seen as an effort to correct an impression created when Bush spoke at Bob Jones University early in the campaign, which is perceived by some as anti-Catholic.
Brooks said he was not “uncomfortable” with the Catholic skybox.”
In fact, he said, the party’s finance chairman, Mel Sembler, who is also an active member of the coalition, has a “personal box and has invited to it leaders of the Jewish community and of the party.”
“The party has been nothing but generous and welcoming to us,” he said. “It has bent over backwards to accommodate us.”