PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 1 (RNS)--For a long time, Jewish Republicans were to electoral politics what the quark was to particle physics: They existed in theory but no one had really seen one. Or, as one lonely Jewish Republican said a few years ago, all the Jewish Republicans in the country would fit into a telephone booth.
It was a joke, but no one in the party was laughing.
Time and again, when an electoral cycle rolled around, Jewish voters could be relied upon to go solidly, sometimes overwhelmingly, for Democrats, often delivering the margin of victory.
This year, however, Jewish Republicans--yes, they're out there, just like quarks--are almost bubbling with confidence over the prospect of drawing their co-religionists to the GOP fold.
"I think we have made great headway in creating a different perception of the Republican Party within the Jewish community," said Cheryl Halpern, national leader of the Republican Jewish Coalition. "I think Gov. (George W.) Bush will pull a third of the Jewish vote nationally. That would make me very happy."
Halpern, a former Democrat from Livingston, N.J., for eight years has guided the RJC, the only national organization of GOP Jews. She remains optimistic even though the political calculus shows her mission this fall to be as daunting as attracting gay voters to the party, for example, or African-Americans.
That, Jewish leaders say, is because Halpern and the RJC have to sell Jewish voters on a candidate who last December famously proclaimed Jesus as his favorite political philosopher and who once suggested that only Christians will go to heaven.
Indeed, few recent nominees have been as vocal as George W. Bush about their Christian faith and in a way that can make non-Christians--especially Jews--nervous.
After the 1994 interview about salvation only for Christians, for instance, Bush made matters worse by joking with a reporter before a trip to Israel that he planned to tell Israelis they're "going to hell."
Then last November, the Texas governor raised eyebrows in the Jewish community by urging Pat Buchanan, the Republican firebrand who has been viewed as soft on Nazis and tough on Jews, not to bolt the party.
And earlier this year, he had to clarify remarks praising the Nation of Islam and saying the group -- whose leader, Louis Farrakhan, has frequently outraged Jews with his statements -- would qualify for federal money through his proposed faith-based programs.
Just last month, Bush irked Jewish leaders again by proclaiming June 10 as Jesus Day because "people of all religions recognize Jesus Christ as an example of love, compassion, sacrifice and service."
"That stuff definitely makes Jews plenty nervous," said David Twersky, editor of New Jersey Jewish News and a keen observer of Jewish political life. "They don't like the religious right. It scares them."
Liberal Jewish political attitudes are largely the product of the history of persecution of Jews in the Old World at the hands of Christians and their experience in America as poor immigrants.
Hence, Jews (with the exception of many in the small Orthodox branch) have traditionally been for unions and social justice causes and against breaching the church-state wall, which they see as the first step toward Christian hegemony.
That thinking bolsters Jewish support for abortion rights and rejection of prayer in public schools. Meanwhile, strong Jewish communal solidity has helped pass these liberal political attitudes almost undiluted down the generations, long after most American Jews became affluent and well-educated, developments that led many other Democrats to go Republican.
Yet Halpern and her group are confident they can overcome this history and the doubts among their fellow Jews, enough so that the group recently changed its name from the cryptic National Jewish Coalition to the four-square Republican Jewish Coalition.
No doubts there.
"Because someone is devoutly Christian does not necessarily make them hostile to the Jewish community," said Matt Brooks, executive director of the RJC.
Brooks conceded, however, that Bush's statements "play unfortunately on certain fears and biases that exist among certain parts of the Jewish community that Democrats use to their political advantage."
Still, Brooks insisted that Bush and other Republican candidates will do better than usual with Jews in November because of what he calls "the changing face of the Republican Party" this year. "The whole notion of compassionate conservatism and the less strident rhetoric appeals to Jewish voters," Brooks said.
The RJC's goals for this fall are modest, and they would have to be. Democrats regularly get more than three-fourths of the Jewish vote, and President Bill Clinton topped 80 percent twice, an extraordinary feat in a three-way race. Presumptive Democratic nominee Vice President Al Gore also remains popular with Jews.
But the GOP has good reason to go after Jewish votes. The election is likely to be close, and while there are just 6 million U.S. Jews, they are concentrated in crucial states such as California, Florida, New York and New Jersey.
When Republicans--including New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan--attracted a third of the Jewish vote or more, they won. But those candidates are all social moderates who offered Jewish voters a certain comfort level.
"What the Republican handlers would like is to get back to the 35 percent (of the Jewish vote) that Bush's father got in 1988" when he won the presidency, Twersky said. "Personally, I'd be rather surprised if they broke that barrier."
For his part, Brooks knows the challenge ahead and is coy when it comes to predictions of what Bush could get.
"More than '96," he laughed. That, of course, was the year Bill Clinton got 82 percent of the Jewish vote.