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Both Parties Court Expatriate Vote

Overseas ballots probably put Bush over the top in Florida in 2000. Israel is fertile ground for Republicans.

August 29, 2004|Randall Richard | Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK — When decision time comes this fall, the real swing votes in the 2004 presidential election may not come from Pennsylvania, Ohio or even the notorious Florida. The ultimate Bush-Kerry battleground may be somewhere more far-flung and unexpected -- Israel, Britain, even Indonesia.

And both political camps say they are getting ready for the fight, courting American voters who are living overseas and taking no chances that the expatriate vote will undermine them at the finish line.

Although an official census has never been taken, between 4 million and 10 million U.S. citizens are believed to be living abroad. Those over 18 are entitled to have their absentee votes counted in the state where they last lived -- no matter how long ago that was. And many are planning to do just that.

"There's enormous interest abroad because the whole of the world depends on the result," said Phyllis Earl, 72, who lives in Britain and has not voted in a U.S. election since 1956, two years after she moved overseas.

Overseas voters are considered particularly important this year. Polls suggest razor-thin margins in several battleground states, and votes coming in from abroad -- a score here, a dozen there -- could well tip the balance.

Contrary to widespread belief, it was more likely American voters in Israel, not Florida, who put George W. Bush in the White House four years ago -- a phenomenon that has Kerry's supporters in Israel vowing to do whatever it takes to make certain that doesn't happen again in November.

Kerry's sister Diana speaks several languages and has been using them all in campaign swings throughout Europe. Sharon Manitta, spokeswoman for the group Democrats Abroad, said Kerry supporters had been active in "overseas outreach efforts" in Europe, Indonesia, Mexico and even Iran. In 2000, the organization had 30 overseas chapters; now it has a presence in 73 countries -- including an Iraq chapter called "Donkeys in the Desert."

Bush too has advocates chasing the overseas vote on his behalf, according to Ryan King, deputy director of Republicans Abroad, which has chapters in 50 countries. Among those crossing the oceans for Bush this fall are former Vice President Dan Quayle and George P. Bush, son of the president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

"Be an expatriate patriot," says an ad planned by Republicans Abroad that also quotes former President Ronald Reagan: "We cannot play innocents abroad in a world that is not innocent."

After Labor Day, Republicans Abroad also plans campaign ads on the president's behalf in the International Herald Tribune and in Stars and Stripes, a newspaper with wide distribution among the estimated 300,000 to 400,000 U.S. military personnel serving abroad.

Those who doubt that Americans living abroad could tip the balance in 2004 might consider this: Various chads aside, Al Gore received 202 more votes than George W. Bush on election day 2000 in Florida. Only after all the overseas votes were counted, including more than 12,000 from Israel alone, was Bush's election victory certified. The margin was 537 votes.

In 2000, according to King, Israel was one of the keys to Bush's success. No other foreign country's U.S. citizens contributed more to Bush's narrow Florida victory, he said.

Harvard Professor Gary King, co-compiler of a survey analyzing Florida's overseas vote in 2000, has no doubt that expatriate Americans gave Bush his victory four years ago. And although it's unclear whether the vote from Israel alone was enough to put Bush over the top, 185,000 U.S. citizens live there -- an undetermined number from Florida.

Mark Zober, chairman of Democrats Abroad in Israel, said he had no firm figures but estimated that roughly 100,000 Americans in Israel were eligible to vote in the upcoming U.S. election, and that about 14,000 were registered in 2000.

But how could Israeli Jews give Bush his margin of victory when Jewish Democrats outnumber Jewish Republicans by a wide margin in the United States? Both Zober and Ryan King think they know the answer.

Zober sees little doubt that the Jewish vote in New York state heavily favored Gore. But in the 2000 presidential election, Zober points out, it made no difference how Israeli immigrants from New York voted.

Israel is home to about 6,000 former Floridians -- expatriates who tend to be more conservative than Jewish voters in New York and many of whom voted for Bush in the last election, Zober said.

Additionally, he said from his office in Tel Aviv, many Israeli Americans who might have voted for Gore if they were living in the United States voted for Bush because they considered him an unflinching supporter of Israel.

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