Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaking at the Jewish Federation of Broward County, Daniel D. Cantor Senior Center in Sunrise, Florida on Oct. 21, 2012. Seated, to his left, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fl.) chairman of the Democratic National Committee (photo by Lynn Sweet)
WASHINGTON -- Mayor Rahm Emanuel does not often invoke his middle name. In shoring up the Jewish vote for President Barack Obama, it helps.
"I, Rahm Israel Emanuel, would not be here if I had a doubt or a sliver of a doubt about this president's commitment to the security and the safety of the state of Israel," Emanuel told a crowd of mostly seniors who filled a chandeliered ballroom in the clubhouse at Huntington Lakes, an "active adult" gated condo community in Delray Beach, Fla.
"I would not be here if I had a doubt. I wouldn't work in that office if I had a doubt," Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff, said last Monday.
In the closing days of a contest in which Mitt Romney and Obama are locked in a tight race, both campaigns and their allies are heavily targeting Jewish voters in crucial battleground states.
Jews register, turn out
The national Jewish vote is tiny -- in 2008 a bit less than 2 percent -- but it went 74 percent for Obama, according to exit polls. Republicans are trying to grab some of those points.
Jewish political power is magnified because of political contributions from Jews -- especially on the high end -- and because Jews register and turn out. In this election, there are concentrations of Jews in the swing states of Florida, Ohio and Nevada -- enough to fight over.
According to projections by Ira Sheskin, the director of the University of Miami's Jewish Demography Project, about 6 percent of the Florida vote will be Jewish, 3 percent in Ohio and close to 4 percent in Nevada. "Quite clearly, switching 5 percent of the Jewish vote from the Democrats to the Republican can make a significant difference," Sheskin told me.
"Part of a presidential election is not only getting your voters to turn out but holding down the other guy's margins," Tevi Troy, a senior Romney adviser, told me.
The Obama campaign is using Emanuel to appeal to Jewish voters in the crucial battleground states of Florida and Ohio, where he is stumping Saturday and Sunday. Among Emanuel's Jewish-themed events is a brunch with Jewish community leaders in Akron.
Emanuel's father immigrated to Chicago from Israel, and his older brother, Ezekiel, was born in Israel. The Chicago-born Emanuel told me he spent summers in Israel as a youth, between 1967 and 1973.
Last Sunday, in South Florida, Emanuel packed the large sanctuary at Beth Am, a Reform synagogue near Miami, and then headed to the Daniel Cantor Senior Center in Sunrise, where he double-teamed with Democratic National Committee Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) on her home turf.
At each stop, Emanuel invoked the name of Israeli Defense Minister and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak (with whom he met at City Hall on Sept. 20) as vouching for Obama as the "best president" Israel has had. Condo neighbors saying something else? Said Emanuel, "you better tell" Barak "he's all wet" and "somehow you know more than he does."
For Emanuel, it's about the pushback.
Romney team aggressive
The Romney team has been making a concerted effort to peel off Jewish voters -- focusing on a message that Obama has "thrown Israel under a bus." Hitting Obama on Israel is designed to plant doubts among an overwhelmingly Democratic voting bloc -- with many voters who also care very much about Medicare, Social Security, other social safety-net programs and abortion rights.
"Obama . . . Oy Vey!! Had enough?" blare 10 billboards in southern Florida paid for by the Republican Jewish Coalition, part of a $6.5 million drive to bolster Romney. In 2008, the coalition spent only about $1 million to try to defeat Obama.
Obama, like every U.S. president before him, is pro-Israel. The complaints I heard over and over in Florida had to do a lot with strategy and tactics -- should Obama have visited Israel when he was in the region in 2009 -- or developed a warmer relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? There is worry about Iran's ability to launch a nuclear strike against Israel.
By the way -- on that matter of visiting Israel: former President Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush never went; his son, George W. Bush, traveled there in his eighth year as president.
Last Wednesday, at a Romney campaign office in Boca Raton, I talked to Burt Simon, a retired electrical contractor -- raised in Chicago, a Senn High School graduate -- a political independent who voted for John McCain in 2008. "I thought he snubbed Bibi," Simon said, using Netanyahu's nickname. "And I thought he should have visited Israel when he was in the Middle East."
Back at the condo clubhouse in Delray Beach, Obama campaign volunteer Nate Smith, a Boynton Beach retiree who came to hear Emanuel, told me he was worried because "too many Jewish people do not believe Obama is a friend of Israel."
Smith asked Emanuel during his talk, "How do you get through to these people?"
Both sides send in cavalry
In answering, Emanuel turned to the matter of Obama visiting Israel, to offer up the ammunition to get through: Obama had been to Israel twice before becoming president, Emanuel noted, and "a president goes not as a tourist. A president goes for strategic reasons."
A president does not just drop by.
Emanuel continued, telling the Delray group for Obama, "There are always new bars that are always set. 'You haven't done this, you haven't done that,' you don't feel it in your kishke,' said Emanuel, using the Yiddish word for gut.
Both campaigns are doing massive Jewish outreach in Florida and Ohio, sending in squads of surrogates.
The Republican Jewish Coalition's chief, former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.); former Bush White House Secretary Ari Fleischer, and coalition executive director Matt Brooks are hitting Ohio on Monday, Nevada on Tuesday, and Florida at the end of the week.
". . . They can send Rahm Emanuel or whatever surrogates they want out there, but Jewish voters know there has not been the same warm relationship between the U.S. and Israel under this administration," Troy said.
Obama and Romney had a sharp exchange last week -- at their final debate in Boca Raton -- on Israel with Romney critical of Obama not visiting Israel when he was in the region. "By the way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to the other nations," Romney said.
In reply -- Obama was primed -- Obama noted that they both visited Israel as presidential candidates and unlike Romney, "I didn't take donors, I didn't attend fund-raisers. I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable."
On Friday, the Obama campaign launched a new ad aimed at Jewish voters, highlighting Obama's response at the Boca Raton debate about the U.S. funding an Israeli missile system, Obama's 2008 Israel visit and sanctions on Iran.
On this, there is agreement: Said the coalition's Brooks: "One thing we know for sure is Jews are going to vote."