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THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Arabs in Florida Angered by Bush

October 04, 2004|Peter Wallsten and John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writers

ORLANDO, Fla. — Ever since President Bush narrowly won Florida four years ago, Democrats have meticulously courted key voting blocs that strategists believe could help reverse the party's fortunes in 2004 -- showering attention on seniors, African Americans, Jews, and Cuban and Haitian Americans.

On Sunday night, a surprising new ethnic thread wove itself into Florida's ever-complicated political fabric: the frustrated Arab American.

Business owners, physicians, lawyers and others -- furious over the Bush administration's post-Sept. 11 policies that many believe unfairly target Muslims and Arab Americans in the government's quest to root out terrorists -- huddled in a hotel ballroom across the street from Disney World to demonstrate how much they wanted a change in the White House.

The meeting, intended to be a bipartisan affair sponsored by the Washington-based Arab American Institute, turned into a cheering session for Democratic nominee Sen. John F. Kerry -- illustrating a dramatic shift in a traditionally Republican group.

"I thought Bush was another Ronald Reagan on a small scale for what he believed in," said Ashley Ansara, president of a clinical research company in Orlando. "I found out he's no Reagan. Not even close."

He said this would be the first presidential election since he moved to the U.S. in 1973 that he wouldn't be voting Republican.

Sunday night's fervor first surfaced in the spring, when more than 150 Arab American voters packed onto chartered buses bound for the University of Central Florida in Orlando, where local Democratic leaders were gathering to elect delegates to the party's national convention.

Some had voted for Bush in 2000. Others had never voted at all. But when they arrived at UCF that morning, they made an important statement by claiming three of the eight delegate slots from two congressional districts.

Kerry's gains, though, could prove thorny in Florida, where Democratic Party politics has long been characterized by close ties to the state's massive Jewish community and staunch support for Israel.

Some Democrats say privately they fear alienating Jewish voters with an overt effort to reach Arab Americans.

The Massachusetts senator has already encountered trouble on that front, when he told the Arab American Institute a year ago that the security fence being constructed by Israel in and around the West Bank was a "barrier to peace." Later, he assured miffed Jewish leaders that he believed the fence was a legitimate tool for self-defense against terrorism.

But Kerry also has promoted a Senate voting record that has received a 100% rating from pro-Israel lobbyists.

As a result, Kerry's Florida campaign includes a carefully crafted message that seeks common ground between moderate Arab and Jewish voters on civil liberties and other domestic concerns -- but shies away from the details of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, according to key Democrats and Arab leaders.

That point was emphasized last week during a conference call with about 40 Arab American leaders in Florida and around the country held by Cam Kerry, the candidate's brother and a convert to Judaism.

Cam Kerry assured the group that courting Jews and Arabs was not a "zero-sum game," according to a participant in the call, which took place last week on the eve of the candidates' first debate, in South Florida.

If Kerry can succeed in wooing the Arab American vote, the payoff could be enormous, especially in key swing states.

The Arab American Institute estimates, for instance, that there are more than 100,000 Arab or Muslim voters in Florida -- and that at least 45% of them backed Bush in 2000 and many others supported Green Party nominee Ralph Nader, who has Lebanese roots.

In that campaign, Bush went out of his way to send a message to Arab Americans that he understood their concerns -- noting in his second debate with Democrat Al Gore that "secret evidence" should not be used against them, presumably in criminal cases.

Four years later, the Bush administration defends the Patriot Act, the controversial anti-terrorism law signed by Bush within two months of the Sept. 11 attacks. Critics say the law allows too much government intrusiveness, especially of immigrants, Muslims and people of Arab descent.

A Bush campaign spokesman said that many traditionally conservative Arab Americans would back the president again this year.

"Many Arab Americans support President Bush's pro-growth policies, his mainstream values, which protect the family, and his efforts to promote peace and democracy in the Middle East," spokesman Scott Stanzel said.

But polls this year show that Bush's previously strong support among Arab Americans has subsided.

A July survey, conducted in Florida by Zogby International, showed that just 30% of the state's Arab Americans planned to back Bush and 48% favored Kerry. Thirteen percent supported Nader, who recently won a court battle to appear on the Florida ballot.

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