In the wake of a terrorist attack in Bulgaria that killed five Israelis — and as Mitt Romney prepares to travel to Jerusalem later this month — the stated commitments of President Barack Obama and his Republican rival to the security of Israel will figure more noticeably into the calculus of the presidential campaign.
Obama, campaigning in Florida for two days — a state with a greater share of Jewish voters than any other — stopped today at West Palm Beach’s Century Village, one of the strongholds of elderly and reliably Democratic voters. The president addressed a crowd of senior citizens at the retirement community, his standard stump speech veering into talk of his support for Israel.
In the middle of his 25-minute speech tonight, Obama called the attack in Bulgaria “barbaric” and said: “I want everyone here to know, in my administration, we haven’t just preserved the unbreakable bond with Israel — we have strengthened it.”
This is friendly territory for Obama, who defeated Arizona Senator John McCain by 61.2 percent to 38.3 percent in Palm Beach County, after a concerted campaign by Republicans with advertisements in weekly Jewish newspapers to portray Obama as sympathetic to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the leader of Iran — the nation which Israeli leaders blame for the bloodshed in Bulgaria and attacks on many other fronts.
To bolster his support in 2008, the Obama campaign deployed a Jewish outreach director in Florida who trekked from living rooms to condo clubhouses. Obama “has never wavered when it comes to Israel’s defense,” young Haile Soifer told a couple dozen elderly men and women in one Coconut Creek condo four years ago.
Romney has revived his party’s attempts to make inroads in the Jewish community, which has supported Democratic candidates by margins of at least 8 to 10 in recent elections. President George W. Bush drew 22 percent of the Jewish vote in his re-election effort in 2004, up from 19 percent in 2000 and 16 and 11 percent for Republican candidates in 1996 and ’92. The Republican Jewish Coalition has worked each year at growing that share.
Addressing the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee in March, Romney maintained that the Obama administration `has emboldened the Palestinians.” Romney said: “They are convinced that they can do better at the U.N. – and better with America – than they can at the bargaining table with Israel.”
Obama’s relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also has been strained by developments of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the possibility of an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Romney plans to meet with Netanyahu, whom the former governor of Massachusetts has known since the 1970s, when both worked for the Boston Consulting Group.
Earlier today, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on the way to Florida that, while the U.S. is “waiting for assessments of responsibility” for the carnage in Bulgaria, he would “note as a general principle that Hezbollah has backed and Iran has backed terrorist actions against innocent people in third countries in the past and we condemn that.”
Obama told his audience that unwavering support for Israel should transcend party lines.
“That’s not a Republican or Democratic issue ,” Obama said at Century Village, “that is an issue of how we work with one of our closest allies in the world that shares our values and beliefs in democracy.”
Mark Silva contributed to this report.