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Jewish supporters aim at key states

A Massachusetts group of leading Jewish supporters of John Kerry's candidacy will spread out across the country in the next three months, targeting presidential campaign battleground states to challenge President Bush's perceived gains among a critical Democratic constituency.

A dozen or more Jewish civic and political officials -- led by Steve Grossman, former chairman of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and Alan Solomont, Kerry's New England finance chairman -- will campaign in Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, where Jewish voters could well tip the balance and decide the presidential election.

A key player in the effort is Kerry's brother Cameron, who attended the group's initial meeting a month ago in Solomont's offices to help plot strategy. The candidate's brother, who converted to Judaism more than two decades ago, returned two weeks ago from a visit to Israel and quickly hurried to Florida, where he spoke to Jewish activists.

The younger Kerry, like his brother, learned from the Globe's reporting last year that his father was half-Jewish, a heritage that the elder Kerry kept secret from his children. Cameron Kerry is telling groups that several months ago he discovered that his great-aunt and great-uncle died in the Terezin concentration camp near Prague. His story of visiting the Holocaust memorial in Israel and finding their names has created emotional moments in his talk with Jewish crowds.

Solomont said in an interview with the Globe that he and the others want to counter the Bush strategy, crafted by White House chief political aide Karl Rove, that for several years has gained the president support among Jewish voters -- a usually solid Democratic constituency -- by offering a strongly pro-Israel policy.

''George Bush has had three-and-a-half years to try to peel off Jewish voters," Solomont said. ''Karl Rove has a clear strategy to pick off 5 to 10 percent of the Jewish vote from the Democrats in the battleground states." In 2000, Bush won only 19 percent of Jewish voters' support. ''Rove and the Republicans continue to create the impression they have cut into the Democrats' support, and if that goes unanswered they could," Solomont said.

Dan Ronayne, spokesman for the Bush campaign, denied the president crafted a Mideast policy for electoral gain. He also repeated GOP charges that Kerry has expressed contradictory positions, including backing off his earlier criticism of Israel's construction of a security fence.

''What we are seeing is good policy also equating to good politics," Ronayne said of GOP gains among Jewish voters. ''The president's support of Israel is clear, it is appreciated, and it is articulated and carried out with great clarity. The same cannot be said for Senator Kerry."

Last month, the Globe reported that a Kerry policy paper is decidedly pro-Israel, backing the construction of a controversial barrier between Israel and the Palestinian territories. Last year, Kerry had called the demarcation a ''barrier to peace."

The debate over presidential politics has become heated within the Jewish community, Grossman said, as Republicans aggressively go after American Jewish support, turning what was once a Democratic stronghold into a significant battleground in this year's fiercely divided presidential race.

''A significant focus throughout the Jewish community around the country at the moment is this battle and how it is going to play out," said Grossman, who was chairman of the Howard Dean campaign during the primaries before switching his allegiance to Kerry. ''Bush offers very little on every important social issue, but his perceived support for Israel has the Republicans extraordinarily optimistic about cutting into what has been usually rock solid support for the Democratic nominee in key battleground states."

''It will fail, but the fact the battle has been joined shows the competitiveness of this race," Grossman said.

Indeed, particularly since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Bush has benefited from his statements about fighting terrorism and his backing of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Israel's tough line against the Palestinians. He has called Sharon a ''man of peace" and won accolades from the American Jewish leaders for his Mideast policies.

In addition, the Christian Coalition, which has a strong influence over Bush and is a force within the Republican Party, is a steadfast supporter of Israel's tough policies on West Bank settlements and Palestinian rights. The Christian right interprets the Bible to mean that Israel belongs to the Jewish people.

A report by the Jewish organization B'nai B'rith predicted a shift among young American Jewish voters away from the Democrats to Republicans, noting that the Jewish vote will be a major battle ground in this year's election.

But Solomont and Grossman say the Democrats have strong arguments to make to the Jewish constituencies that are enticed by Bush's policies toward the Mideast. They say the defense of Israel is only one issue of concern to the community and that Democrats offer other policies that they say provide more social and economic equity, traditionally a major focus of Jewish voters.

''I've never seen a candidate like John Kerry more in tune with the values of the Jewish community," Solomont said.

He also said John Kerry's record on Israel is ''perfect" and that the senator has traveled a number of times to the region and familiarized himself with the issues and its leaders. ''John Kerry has been as good a friend of Israel as anyone," Solomont said. ''He didn't need to be a candidate for president to become interested in these issues. He already has the deep knowledge and experience in foreign relations. He has a relationship with the region."

Grossman said the group selected to campaign for Kerry are people who have known him for many years. ''This team, which knows John Kerry best, will fan out across the country and let people know what John has done for Israel and for the values that we care about," Grossman said.

Those participating in the effort include: state Senator Cynthia S. Creem of Newton; Ruth B. Balser of Newton; former state Representative James Segel of Brookline; former US Attorney Donald Stern; Boston lawyer Richard Glovsky, the former chairman of the New England region of the Anti-Defamation League; Boston lawyer Dennis Kanin; Bob Epstein, part owner of the Celtics and a longtime Kerry supporter; Boston City Councilor Michael Ross; former Rhode Island Lieutenant Governor Richard Licht; and venture capitalist Jonathan Lavine, partner of Bain Capital. 

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