Obama Seeks Jewish Support in Florida Trip
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Although he's not yet his party's nominee, Democrat Barack Obama is already campaigning like one. He's in Florida this week courting voters who are crucial to his hopes of winning that important swing state in a general election. Yesterday Obama was in Boca Raton for a town meeting with one mostly Democratic group he still has to win over: Jewish voters.
From Hollywood, Florida, NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN: It's not that Obama doesn't have a lot of support among Jews in Florida. He does. But they're voters Democrats have depended on. They make up some five percent of the voters here. So it's important that Obama not just win among Jewish voters but win big.
But because the state broke Democratic Party rules by holding an early primary, for several months Obama honored a pledge not to campaign here. That absence might help explain why many Jewish voters here have beliefs and ideas about Obama that, well, just aren't true.
Steve Mersand is a Jewish voter from Palm Beach County and an Obama supporter.
Mr. STEVE MERSAND: I have a number of friends that are Jewish that believe that he's a Muslim, which of course is ridiculous, believe that because his church gave an award to Farrakhan, that he's anti-Semitic, and that he's got a black agenda. And it's unfortunate that people aren't taking the time to speak to that issue.
ALLEN: Mersand was one of several hundred people, mostly Jews, who packed the B'Nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton for yesterday's town hall style meeting. It happens to be the synagogue where Obama's friend and supporter, Florida Congressman Robert Wexler, got married, and he was on hand to smooth the way.
Wexler said misleading and false emails about Obama have spread throughout the Jewish community. He's confident, though, that some quality face time with Obama will make a big difference.
Representative ROBERT WEXLER (Democrat, Florida): When people see, hear, touch Barack Obama in South Florida, (unintelligible) the outpouring of support is going to be enormous.
ALLEN: But not all of Barack Obama's problems with Jewish voters result from Internet misinformation. Rena Lipkind(ph) says she's concerned about Obama's connection with his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
Ms. RENA LIPKIND: I think that entire relationship soured many people and will continue to impact negatively on his campaign.
ALLEN: Perhaps the biggest question among Jewish voters is how strongly Barack Obama supports the state of Israel. Congressman Wexler and a series of other speakers took pains to make it clear. They said he has a perfect record. When he took to the podium, Obama picked up the theme: America and Israel have shared interests and shared values, and that's why, he said, the two countries will always have a special relationship.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democratic, Illinois): And when I am in the White House, I will bring with an unshakeable commitment to maintaining that bond between the United States of America and an unshakeable commitment to Israel's security.
ALLEN: It was mostly a friendly crowd, but there were lots of tough questions, including some about his willingness to hold unconditional talks with Iran and other groups opposed to Israel. Obama said he'd do everything possible to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and work to stop them from funding Hamas and Hezbollah. But over the past eight years, he said, the policy of not talking to enemies hasn't worked. Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, Obama said, have all gotten stronger.
Sen. OBAMA: How is it that the Bush/Cheney/McCain policy has been good Israel? I don't see how it's been good for Israel.
ALLEN: There was talk of policy, but also of the personal. Obama recalled when he was 11 and the Jewish camp counselor who first told him about the Zionist movement and the powerful effect it had on him.
An audience member, Jack Hector(ph), told Obama about something he heard from a friend.
Mr. JACK HECTOR: If Barack Obama changed his name to Barry, I would vote for him.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Sen. OBAMA: Well, let me - this is actually an interesting point, Jack, and I appreciate you bringing it up.
ALLEN: Obama said it's true he had been called Barry when he was growing up, but as he got older, he wanted to acknowledge the other side of his heritage. And, he noted, it's similar to a Hebrew name.
Sen. OBAMA: Barack, actually, interestingly enough, means the same as Baruch. It means one who's blessed.
ALLEN: It wasn't as big or as enthusiastic as a typical Obama campaign rally, but it was a frank discussion with members of an influential voting bloc. And there's more to come. Today Obama's in Miami to begin reaching out to another important group of Florida voters - Cuban Americans.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Hollywood, Florida.
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