Obama, McCain Court Voters In Israel

Presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain are expanding their get out the vote efforts beyond the U.S. Both campaigns are targeting citizens overseas in an effort to bolster their support. One of the largest expatriate communities is in Israel, where efforts are intensifying.

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And I'm Renee Montagne. The presidential campaigns are working harder than ever to get out the vote, and that's true overseas as well. An estimated six million eligible voters live abroad. One of the largest American expatriate communities is in Israel with more than 125,000 potential voters, and efforts to whip up support for John McCain and Barack Obama are intensifying there. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Jerusalem.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Here in the holy city, Kory Bardash, chairman of Republicans Abroad Israel, says he's pounding the Democrats here at the all-important game of registering voters.

Mr. KORY BARDASH (Chairman, Republicans Abroad Israel): Any event, the Democrats were never here. You don't see them. I've been to tens of events, and they just don't show up.

WESTERVELT: Bardash is a 43-year-old business executive at a high-tech company here. This day, he's busily working the lobby of a corporate office park on Jerusalem's outskirts.

Mr. BARDASH: You'll get it. If you don't get it, I'll provide you with a blank absentee ballot. I'm just going to get this.

WESTERVELT: His eyes light up when two expat Americans from a battleground state, this time it's Florida, approach his table.

Unidentified Man: I'm Floridian.

Mr. BARDASH: Where are you from in Florida?

WESTERVELT: American Jews living in the U.S. tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. By contrast, the vast majority of expatriate Jewish voters living in Israel, Bardash believes, are supporting John McCain. He says the Arizona Republican's message that he'll back Israel and stand up to Iran and its suspect nuclear ambitions resonates here. With polls predicting that the November election could be extremely close, Bardash says getting expats signed up is key.

Mr. BARDASH: The state of Florida was won by 537 votes. When people say, oh, every vote counts - every vote counts. And there were over 1,500 people in Israel that actually cast their ballot in Florida in 2000. So, people really do feel that their vote means something. My biggest challenge is getting people to actually register to vote. Once they register to vote, I know they're going to be McCain supporters.

WESTERVELT: At a busy outdoor cafe on the other side of Jerusalem, Samson Altman-Schevitz with Israelis for Obama is taking a very different tack to drum up support for his candidate.

Mr. SAMSON ALTMAN-SCHEVITZ (Head, Israelis For Obama): In the U.S., the Jewish community has been quite hesitant in backing Obama. And we're trying to, from here, show Americans in the U.S. that, you know, there are Israelis here, they're on the ground, who understand the situation here and believe that Obama is the way to go and not McCain.

WESTERVELT: Although Jewish Americans are a small percentage of the voting public - about three percent in 2004, according to exit polls - they've played a key role in deciding the outcome in swing states, including Florida. Altman-Schevitz says his group, which is not officially connected to the Obama campaign, believes its biggest asset when working the phones, the Internet, or the lecture circuit is street credibility.

Mr. ALTMAN-SCHEVITZ: I know Jewish Americans. When I was back in the States just now, they listen to you. You're Israeli. You live here. Or you are Israeli American, but you're here. You know the situation here. And for them, you know, they've been here on a trip once for bar mitzvah. And we're here and that reassures them. To hear, you know, that we stand behind them makes a big, big difference.

WESTERVELT: In the West Bank city of Ramallah, the Palestinians' commercial and cultural capital, there's little buzz or interest in the U.S. elections. Palestinian political analyst Hani al-Masri says after seven plus years of the Bush administration of too little, too late peace efforts and expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, most Palestinians are deeply skeptical a change in the administration in Washington will produce change on the ground.

Mr. HANI AL-MASRI (Palestinian Political Analyst): (Through Translator): The Palestinians are drowning in their own internal problems. And the fact that U.S.-backed peace talks have failed makes the Palestinians lose interest in any sponsor of such negotiations and looks skeptically at America as an honest broker.

WESTERVELT: This summer, after checking out the Obama Web site and chatting with friends on Facebook, Palestinian water engineer Omar Jabril(ph) founded what he calls the West Bank Obama fan club. He says Obama offers the best chance for improved Mid East peace efforts and to improve U.S foreign policies from Darfur to Delhi. But Jabril's had a tough time selling the message to fellow West Bankers.

Mr. OMAR JABRIL (Palestinian Water Engineer): Like active people, that we are now four. And three of them now outside of the country.

WESTERVELT: This one-man fan club says he tried to call the Obama headquarters in Chicago recently to offer them unsolicited campaign advice. He says he couldn't get through. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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