It's no secret that Jewish voters are turned off by Texas Governor George W. Bush. Now we know how turned off they are. Exit polling by the Field organization in California during this week's Super Tuesday primary reported the voter breakdown among Jews (who represented a mere 5 percent of the state electorate) as follows:
  • Vice President Al Gore: 47 percent.
  • Former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley: 23 percent.
  • Arizona Senator John McCain: 21 percent.
  • Bush: 4 percent.

    Four percent for the governor is a huge rejection for the presumptive Republican nominee, and a bad omen for November. The number is far below the estimated 12 to 15 percent of Jews now regarded as hard-core Republican, and which most middle-of-the-road GOP candidates have come to rely upon. Bush pere and Bob Dole enjoyed this low-grade support, and you know where it got them.

    In a separate exit poll, that of the Los Angeles Times, Jews were clocked at 7 percent for Bush, 49 percent for Gore, 26 for McCain and 15 for Bradley. Only blacks had an equally low regard for Bush (though, interestingly, blacks liked McCain even less than they did the GOP front-runner, giving McCain only 3 percent, according to the L.A. Times.)

    It wasn't that Bush didn't try to reach Jews. On the Thursday before the huge multi-state vote, former Secretary of State George Shultz vouched for his candidate's pro-Israel bona fides in a national conference call with Jewish journalists. Bush himself went to the Simon Wiesenthal Center last week and made a plea for ethnic and religious tolerance. None of it helped.

    No doubt, he'll keep trying. Though the Bush campaign has bogged down over support by Bob Jones University and the influence of the Christian right, it was never intended that way. There are Jews visible in every department of the Bush campaign, especially finance. Karl Rove, the Bush chief strategist, said last fall that his plan would be based on the golden (rather than iron) triangle of Latinos, Catholics, and "suburban" voters--suburban being a euphemism for the stable (and presumably anti-labor) middle class, including Jews. Still, it's an open question if Jews will be receptive to a Bush message if he moves back toward the political center.

    My own guess, based on talks with activists from the center right, is that the answer is no. The whole Republican-Jewish strategy seems to have come undone last week. On Tuesday, McCain's Jewish vote was nothing to write home about--2 percent less than McCain's support (21, versus 23) among voters at large, according to the Field poll. McCain courted Jews relentlessly, but his overreaction to the Bob Jones University incident, with his evidence of Bush's supposed anti-Catholicism, backfired. In the end, 37 percent of Catholics went for Gore, followed by 26 percent for McCain and 23 percent for Bush, according to the L.A. Times poll. Jewish independents either went for Bradley or went back to the safety of Al Gore.

    "Bush is terrible," one Jewish McCain supporter told me. "I don't care if he has David Ben-Gurion as his adviser on foreign policy. I won't vote for him."

    Such activists put their faith in John McCain, often overlooking his conservative views on such gut issues as abortion. But for Bush, they are unlikely to cut such slack. And the newly cleansed image of Al Gore makes it all the easier to ignore Republican appeals. Had John McCain been his opponent, morality would have been the key issue at the ballot box next fall.

    But Gore has gone through the trials of the damned with Bill Bradley, emerging as his own man. I've heard much talk this week about Gore's own unique political record before he joined Clinton. The vice president may be less likely to bear the Hubert Humphrey-esque burden of a tainted presidency, less likely to be haunted by Monica Lewinsky and his post-impeachment apologia for Bill Clinton on the White House lawn.

    Moreover, the romantic residue of the Reagan administration has faded, even for conservative-leaning Jews. I asked numerous political activists about the so-called "George Shultz effect"--the halo of having the former secretary of state, deemed a great friend of Israel, on the Bush team. Shultz was your father's secretary of state, but his meaning today is that of history.

    It's worth wondering how McCain's quixotic adventure will impact Jewish voters, other than making them cling to Gore. McCain's appeal to Jews was based on his breath-of-fresh-air effervescence, which made many Americans awaken politically.

    But for the pro-Israel set, he also symbolized a back-to-the-future wishful thinking, a longing for the day when foreign policy mattered.

    It was interesting this week to hear Jewish McCain supporters rushing to separate a prospective Gore foreign policy from that of Clinton, praising Gore and challenging Clinton's reputation as "the best friend Israel ever had."

    "It's easy to be the 'best friend of Israel' if you have Ehud Barak as your [Israeli] president," said Rosalie Zalis, who served as California Governor Pete Wilson's connection to the Jewish community. "Clinton wasn't such a good friend with Netanyahu."

    Members of the pro-Israel Republican crowd, like Zalis, were at McCain's early private "victory party" at the Beverly Hilton Hotel Tuesday evening. There being nothing to celebrate, they had to look ahead.

    Could Zalis support Bush? "I think Al Gore's got people around him who are more dedicated to what's good for Israel," she said by way of an answer. "And I like Tipper Gore."

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