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Obama woos Jewish voters in Florida

May 23, 2008|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

BOCA RATON, FLA. — Courting a key voting bloc, Sen. Barack Obama campaigned at a synagogue Thursday, hoping to persuade Jewish voters to support "a black guy" with "kind of a Muslim-sounding name."

Jettisoning his standard campaign speech, Obama talked instead about his support for Israel and the appeal of the Zionist dream to a biracial child whose family moved often.

"The idea that one could hang on to one's sense of balance and have a sense of family and, despite being an outsider, somehow still had a place to connect to . . . was very powerful to me," he said.

Jewish voters typically make Florida competitive for Democrats, but this year may be different.

Obama has faced an e-mail campaign falsely claiming he is Muslim. The former pastor of his church, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., has praised Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. And Republicans are attacking him for his willingness to negotiate with Iran.

Obama acknowledged these hurdles and spoke of another.

"One of the painful things for me over the past several years," he said, "has been to see the strains between the Jewish community and the African American community."

He said he wanted to regain "that sense of a common kinship, of a people who've been uprooted, a people who've been on the outside -- that strikes me as the very essence of what we should be fighting for."

Obama arrived at Congregation B'nai Torah to sustained applause, and several people wore buttons with his name in Hebrew. But some tensions quickly emerged.

The first questioner praised Obama, then noted that a friend had said: "If Barack Obama would change his name to Barry, I would vote for him."

Obama replied that as a child he was nicknamed Barry. He is named after his Kenyan father, and as a young man he chose to use his full first name to acknowledge his heritage.

"Let's be honest, part of what raises concerns is you've got a black guy named Barack Obama," he said. "So people say, 'He's got kind of a Muslim-sounding name, and we don't know what's going on here.' "

A man who identified himself as Michael Ackerman of Boca Raton read a list of Arab activists and intellectuals whom Obama had met with. To scattered boos, he asked Obama to name Jews who could vouch for him.

Obama bristled as he rattled off several names, including Penny Pritzker, his campaign finance chairwoman; Lee Rosenberg, a board member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group; and Abner J. Mikva, White House counsel to President Clinton.

"One of the raps on me when I first ran for Congress in the African American community is 'He's too close to the Jewish community. All his friends are Jews,' " Obama said. "That's part of the reason why this kind of conversation is frustrating."

He concluded by noting that Republicans were passing out fliers warning that he is anti-Israel.

And he urged people to ignore the whisper campaign that he is Muslim.

"If my politics are wrong, then vote against me because my politics are wrong," he said. "If I'm not honest, if I am not truthful, vote [against] me for that reason.

"But don't vote against me because of who I am -- and I know you won't," Obama said to cheers. "And that's why I know we're going to win Florida and win America."



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