Boston — Even before Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts was to accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for president here Thursday night, a group of his friends was preparing to fan out across the country to stump key battleground states where the Jewish vote could spell the difference between victory and defeat.
“I believe you have to go to people and look them straight in the eye and make the case that your candidate will be in sync with their values, their principles, their priorities and their interests,” said Steven Grossman, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and one of Kerry’s senior advisers.
“We’ve got a team of well-educated, well-trained, highly motivated people,” he said. “The best team John Kerry can have are people from Massachusetts who have known John for 25 years. We’ve got at least 50 people committed and signed up who have already gone to one organizational meeting and who are prepared to go Florida, to Wisconsin, to West Virginia, to Pennsylvania, to Ohio — to battleground states — and to say I want to debate and answer questions and show what we are all about.”
Arthur Schechter, chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, pointed out that there are 1.3 million to 1.4 million Jews in the battleground states, enough to “make the difference in those states — every state that was won or lost by either side last time by fewer than 5 [percentage] points. … There are 17 states that are considered to be battleground states, and there is an appreciable Jewish population in probably five of those states.”
Norm Ornstein, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, agreed that in those battleground states he would expect a concerted effort by both the Republicans and Democrats to woo Jewish voters because “we are at the margins a very significant community in the places that matter.”
“But at this point I do not see a larger trend that would move a sizable share of the Jewish community — more than the margins of the margins of the margins — in the Republican direction,” he said.
Schechter said he believes the “Republicans make a big mistake if they say that [Kerry] is soft on Israel. Eventually that kind of a canard is going to come back and [hurt the party].”
But although Kerry may have a plan for achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians that is supportive of the government of Israel, it was not mentioned by his key aides and supporters in their discussions with Jewish delegates.
Few delegates seemed to mind, however, with one suggesting that Kerry may prefer not to be too specific because the Israeli government’s position may change if its government changes.
But an ABC News-Washington Post poll this week suggested that voters do want to hear specifics from Kerry on key issues confronting the nation. More than 54 percent of voters said they are unfamiliar with Kerry’s positions, compared with only 25 percent who are uncertain about Bush’s views.
Cameron: Brother Is ‘Friend Of Israel’
Instead, what Jewish delegates here heard were assurances and testimonials when it came to Kerry and Israel. And the star attraction on the testimonial circuit was Kerry’s younger brother, Cameron, who converted to Judaism from Catholicism 21 years ago when he married a Jewish woman, Kathy Weinman.
Cameron Kerry, speaking at a luncheon honoring Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), lost no time endearing himself to the standing-room-only crowd of Jewish Democrats by referring to himself as the “first Jewish baby brother.”
“How do you say ‘second banana’ in Yiddish?” he asked to more laughter.
“John Kerry can be a friend of Israel and will be and will stand by and will not walk away,” Cameron Kerry insisted. “I know that because I know John’s 20 years’ perfect record of standing by Israel in the Senate and going to Israel since 1986. This is somebody who doesn’t need to be briefed to understand the vulnerability Israel faces.”
To help cement his own credentials with the Jewish community, Cameron Kerry, a Boston lawyer, returned just two weeks ago from his first trip to Israel, which he described as an “intense experience.”
He recalled visiting Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial and archive to the Holocaust, and seeing a book that recorded the names of his great-uncle and great-aunt who “perished in the Holocaust.”
“We didn’t know until three months ago that they existed,” he said. “For me it was a tremendous sense of loss.”
Cameron Kerry, 53, said he was particularly struck by the picture of a 20-year-old survivor who appeared to be 70 because of the suffering he had experienced.
“But his eyes were lit with hope, and that hope represents the State of Israel — hope from the ashes of the Holocaust,” he said.
Referring to the hostility of many nations toward the United States, Cameron Kerry said: “It makes a difference to Israel to have America respected in the world. When America is isolated in the world, Israel is isolated. We need an America that is respected. There are avenues around the world named Roosevelt and Kennedy. Does anyone here foresee avenues named Bush?”
Grossman said later that it was important for Cameron Kerry to address the group.
“I think that when people leave they will say that they didn’t know much about John Kerry, but that if Cam Kerry is the type of person John Kerry is going to have at his right hand every day for eight years in the White House, that gives me comfort,” he said.
“That’s why it was important that Cam went to Israel,” he added. “That story is very compelling. It’s not just about the Holocaust, it’s about the past, the present, the future.”
Although Cameron Kerry criticized Bush for “walking away” from Israel during his first 18 months of office and for abstaining on a United Nations vote critical of Israel, most other speakers deliberately refrained from any criticism.
“I don’t have a negative word to say about President Bush when it comes to Israel,” Lieberman, the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee four years ago, told The Jewish Week. “He’s been a great supporter and friend of Israel. The good news for people who care about Israel is that whoever gets elected next November to the White House is going to be a friend of Israel in the Oval Office.
“What do I say to people about why they should vote for John Kerry? Because he represents a different, more progressive way in domestic policy — health care, education, retirement security, environmental protection, civil rights. So you can get strength on Israel and a more progressive domestic policy.”
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the chairman of the convention, told a Sunday-night reception for Jewish delegates that Bush’s policy on Israel “has been OK.”
“It has,” he insisted, as some in the crowd groaned. “I’m not going to play partisan politics with issues of national security. But remember, the Democratic Party has historic ties to Israel, and with John Kerry it will be strong because it’s in our interests too.”
Grossman also declined to criticize Bush on his Israel record.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to go toe-to-toe and try to convince people that somehow Bush is bad,” he said. “The right approach is to acknowledge that President Bush has been supportive and point out certain areas where he has shown some inconsistencies and weaknesses.”
Bush Too Close To Saudis?
Grossman then quickly moved to domestic issues “that Jews care about, like the sacrosanct principle of a separation of church and state, a woman’s right to choose, civil rights, civil liberties, stem cell research, the Supreme Court — all those things.”
“Have you ever heard John Kerry say that we want this to be a Christian nation?” Grossman asked. “Have you ever heard that? Well, you heard the president say that.”
Schechter picked up on the same theme when he said in an interview that the “Republican platform in Texas again this year, as it has for the last decade when Bush ran for governor, basically makes it known that Texas is a Christian state within a Christian country and considers the separation of church and state to be a myth.”
Ornstein, in a breakfast meeting sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, said Jews remain socially liberal or moderate and that “the more the president turns his focus to the core of Christian conservatives, including 6 million who did not vote in 2000, the more it is going to leave Jews feeling uneasy [and] the more Kerry is able to draw those kinds of contrasts, stem cells being particularly important.
“If I were the Kerry campaign,” he said, “I would be hammering away at that issue, which resonates with the Jewish community.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan) pointed out that the Bush administration took its time in recognizing the true terrorist groups in the Middle East.
“I remember when they wouldn’t label Hamas a terrorist group,” he said, “when [former White House press secretary] Ari Fleischer was saying that al-Qaeda were terrorists but Hamas were not and that Israel had no right to selectively target leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah, but that we had every right to send predator drones into Yemen to target al-Qaeda leaders individually and that Israel had no right to do that because it was different. And they said Israel shouldn’t build a fence. These things are all in the past, but who knows how they’ll recur.”
Rep. Anthony Wiener (D-Brooklyn) said that although Bush’s record on Israel has been good, he has been “way too close to the Saudis. … We just had a vote on the floor of Congress and the Democrats voted overwhelmingly to cut off aid to the Saudis while the Republicans voted to continue it. So I think it is becoming a partisan wedge issue; at least I hope it is.”
Rep. Steve Israel (D-L.I.), cosponsor of the Saudi amendment, said the Democrats were “united behind the principle that when the president drew a line in the sand that separated democracy and dictatorship, education and indoctrination, that line was correct. And that line shouldn’t be washed over by oil.
“When it comes to Saudi Arabia, the Bush administration has shown complete inconsistency in foreign policy and has sought to protect them,” he said. “Even when Weiner and I offered an amendment that said don’t give foreign military aid to the country that produced 15 of 19 9-11 hijackers, this administration went so far as to oppose that amendment. Now if that isn’t a staggering foreign policy inconsistency, then I don’t know what is.”
Dan Ain contributed to this report.