Delray Beach, Fla. — In the heart of Jewish South Florida — Boca Raton — on the eve of the crucial Florida primary, Audrey Atlas was channeling Republican voters everywhere.
A former Democrat who admits she has become more conservative in recent years, Atlas, 70, is so fed up with President Barack Obama (“he’s too left wing”) that she switched her party affiliation in December in order to vote in Tuesday’s Republican-only primary.
But when it comes to the two leading GOP contenders — the staid Mitt Romney and the combustible Newt Gingrich — Atlas was torn between her head and her heart, her political id and superego.
“I love Gingrich’s personality, charisma and ability to speak up when needed without being politically correct — and I wish Romney had more of that — but [Gingrich] has too much baggage,” she said. “If the baggage was not there, I’d vote for him in a second.”
Then, sounding like a guest on “The Rachel Maddow Show,” Atlas launched into the familiar Gingrich “baggage” litany: “But his association with Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, being forced to resign from House speaker in disgrace, running up a huge bill at Tiffany’s — it doesn’t bode well with a country that’s out of work.”
In the end, Atlas said, she was going to cast her vote — reluctantly, to say the least — for the baggage-less Mitt Romney, her political superego nudging aside her id. And she won’t be the only Republican Jew in South Florida to make the same political calculation. (Speaking Tuesday night after the primary had been called in her candidate’s favor, the Romney campaign’s Florida co-chair, Margi Helschien, told The Jewish Week, “This race is pretty much over at this point. We will now get ready for the general election.”)
In interviews with more than 50 Jewish Republicans over four days, from Delray Beach to Boca to Pompano Beach, the issues of Israel and the economy were surely in the minds of these voters. But the Gingrich “baggage” was a constant refrain, as if the Jews here, most of them seniors, were considering moral and character questions more than the heavily Evangelical voters of South Carolina. They gave Gingrich a resounding win, even finding him more “electable” than Romney despite his serial infidelity — something Audrey Atlas failed to mention in discussing Gingrich’s baggage.
But Maxine Burstein, 70, a Romney supporter from Delray Beach, didn’t forget.
“He two-timed two of his wives,” she said. “The first wife had cancer and the second M.S., and he was having an affair while both wives were sick. He shouldn’t come out now with a holier-than-thou attitude saying he is reformed.”
And Stephen Melcer, 59, of Boca Raton said he liked Gingrich but fears he is “going to implode because he lacks temperament. … It is the first time in my 40 years of voting that I’ve changed my mind so many times in an election — and I’m now leaning towards Romney.”
About 600,000 Republicans cast early ballots and absentee votes before today’s primary — about 100,000 more than were cast in 2008. And Romney and Gingrich ads continue to flood the airwaves here in what is considered a crucial swing state in November’s general election.
Polls of likely Republican voters showed Romney ahead here by more than 10 percent, and with a growing lead in national polls after momentarily stumbling following Gingrich’s surprisingly strong victory in the South Carolina primary Jan. 21.
Although Florida has more Jews (about 650,000) than the other states that have thus far held a Republican presidential caucus or primary this year, Jews are said to represent only about 5 percent of the electorate here and reportedly were an estimated 3 percent of those who voted in the Republican primary four years ago.
According to early exit polls Tuesday night cited by The New York Times, only 1 percent of voters identified as Jewish, down from 3 percent in the ’08 Florida Republican primary.
As he waited in the Delray Civic Center last Friday afternoon for Newt Gingrich to enter the hall here, Milton Weinberg said he had been a Gingrich supporter until the televised candidates’ debate the prior evening.
“Newt was horrible last night,” said Weinberg, 89, of Delray Beach. “I had loved him before, but last night [Rick] Santorum was great and so was [Mitt] Romney. Now I’m undecided.”
But after hearing a rousing 30-minute speech by Gingrich — who arrived an hour late about two hours before Shabbat — Weinberg said Monday that he was so bowled over by Gingrich that he rushed out the next morning to cast an early ballot for the former House speaker.
“It was an absolutely fantastic, stupendous speech,” he gushed. “He committed himself to Israel 100 percent. His demeanor and attitude was so positive. He is a strong individual and will not bow to anybody. Romney is a weakling in many respects … but Gingrich will make a great president. He has a vision for the future that I liked.”
At a Romney rally in Pompano Beach Sunday evening, the former Massachusetts governor arrived nearly a half-hour late and spoke about 15 minutes to about 700 supporters in this predominantly non-Jewish area. Andy Feinberg, 57, of Pompano Beach stood out with his black yarmulke and lapel button of American and Israeli flags.
“I feel Romney’s the best person to beat Obama and that the others carry too much baggage,” he said. “Things are totally out of control in the Middle East, gasoline prices are rising and the president doesn’t allow us to drill [for oil]. No president has treated Israel the way Obama has; he is against Israel and for the Palestinians. You don’t give land away that was given to us by God.”
Unlike Gingrich, who left the stage immediately after his remarks, Romney spent 20 minutes shaking hands and signing autographs. Gingrich, who was accompanied by his wife, wore a suit and tie; Romney, accompanied by his wife, a son and grandson, wore a button-down sports shirt. Gingrich’s wife didn’t speak; Romney’s wife introduced herself and spoke of her husband’s support during her battles with multiple sclerosis and breast cancer. And she spoke of raising five boys during the Romney’s more than 40 years of marriage.
Left unsaid was Gingrich’s personal life. But it was uppermost in the mind of Jerry Stein, 79, of Boca Raton.
“If Gingrich couldn’t stick by his wives, how is he going to stick by this country?” he asked.
Stein was one of several Jews interviewed here who said they had voted for Obama four years ago and were now voting Republican because of their disappointment with him.
“All of the promises he made he did not fulfill,” Stein explained. “And the ones he kept he screwed up, like health care. I don’t think he is a businessman or knows what’s going on in the business world. He was a social worker.”
But at the Gingrich rally, Judy and Steven Eller of Delray Beach — who wore T-shirts they designed themselves that read “A Newt Beginning” on the front and “2012 A Happy Newt Year” on the back — said they are ardent Gingrich fans.
“He’s articulate, intelligent, forceful, knowledgeable and can see what was so he won’t repeat the mistakes of the past,” Judy Eller said. “He’s shaking up the status quo.”
The Gingrich campaign worked with the Republican Jewish Coalition to stage the Delray rally for Jewish Republicans, and about 700 filled the room. An RJC event a day earlier for the Romney campaign — in which former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton was a surrogate for Romney — drew about 100.
The RJC, which does not endorse a candidate, handed out buttons saying, “Obama, Oy Vey!”
And that seemed to be the attitude of many Jews who said they were so dissatisfied with Obama that they would vote in November for anybody but Obama.
“I switched my enrollment to the Republican Party about a month ago because I am concerned about the future of the United States,” said Michael Libman, 68, of Delray Beach. “This country was built on hard work, not Food Stamps. … This administration wants to make us more European and socialistic. If Obama gets into office again, he could change policies and redistribute the wealth, which I am not for. I’m an Orthodox Jew and 98 percent of those in my community will also vote against Obama.”
Sarah Goldberg, 60, of Boca Raton, said she had been “a lifelong Democrat, but Obama made me a Republican.”
Murray Schlossman, who said he too switched his party registration for Tuesday’s vote, said he wants to see Obama defeated in November because “he’s inept and if he is not a Muslim, he has Muslim tendencies and is anti-Israel.”
A number of other Jews interviewed here this week also voiced a firm conviction that Obama — despite his repeated denials — is a Muslim. Only one person said he was uncomfortable with the fact that Romney is a Mormon; no one else even mentioned it.
Many Gingrich supporters said they wanted him to become the Republican nominee because they believed Gingrich would do better in a debate with Obama than Romney. Many Romney supporters said their candidate stood a better chance of defeating Obama because he is a moderate who could attract independent voters and would be more palatable to Democrats dissatisfied with Obama.
At the Romney meeting with Bolton, Corey Breier, 56, of Aventura said he is supporting Romney out of fear that if Obama won re-election “he would choose a path of the extreme left, and that would mean pressuring Israel to go back to its 1967 borders.”
Obama’s treatment of Israel and the economy were the major issues Jewish Republicans cited when discussing their opposition to Obama. Many said they still could not forget what they described as Obama’s snub of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when the Israeli leader visited the White House in March 2010 and was left alone for more than an hour while Obama dined in the family living quarters.
“He was totally disrespectful of Netanyahu and is the only president who has not been to Israel,” said Judy Madison, 50, of Boca Raton.
At a luncheon for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Boca Raton Monday, about 20 percent of the more than 700 people in attendance applauded at the mention of all the Republican Jews in Florida. A number of those interviewed said they backed Romney.
“Romney has more experience with governance than the other candidates, particularly Gingrich,” said Charlie Fischer, 48, a certified financial planner from Fort Lauderdale. “I’m also concerned that the current administration has not supported Israel enough.”
But Yael Camhi, 50, of Boca Raton said she was disgusted with the campaign here because the candidates spent half their time tearing down each other “rather than addressing the issues we are all interested in hearing about.” n
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