Charles Dharapak, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — On a trip to Israel, Mitt Romney is trying to win over a tiny sliver of a small — but powerful — section of the American electorate. President Barack Obama is doing the same at home.
But while Romney's trip is unlikely to change the broader presidential campaign against Obama, he's hoping to close the gap among Jewish voters.
For all the wooing of American Jews in presidential campaigns, those who say Israel's fate drives their vote make up 6 percent of a reliably Democratic bloc. The tiny numbers are overlaid with an outsize influence. Campaign donations from Jews or Jewish and pro-Israel groups account for as much as 60 percent of Democratic money, and groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee can bring strong pressure on candidates.
"This is going to be a close election. We are in a tight, tight race," said Democratic pollster Jim Gerstein. "But this race will not swing on the Jewish vote."
The notion of being an American Jew has changed over the years. Jews have married outside their faith and ethnic enclaves have given way to integrated cities. In the process, Israel has faded as a driving issue in their homes and seems to have faded as a flashpoint in politics.
"They're disconnected from their ancestral roots," Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based consultant, said of Jewish voters. "People are becoming less observant so they're less tied to Israel, less tied to their faith, less tied to their history."
In turn, Jewish voters look at the election through secular lenses. Although the campaign rhetoric skews toward them when the candidates talk about Israel, assuming that Jews vote based on U.S. policy toward Israel is a losing proposition.
Romney also needs to show his commitment to Israel because the reliably Republican evangelical Christian vote also holds candidates to account on that topic.
"Jewish Americans, like most Americans, have come to assume that mainstream politicians and elected officials will stand strongly with Israel so there's oftentimes no urgency that is reflected in the polling," said Robert Wexler, a former Democratic congressman from Florida whose district was heavily Jewish.
"Even partisan people who cherish the American-Israeli relationship cringe when Israel is used as a political football," said Wexler, who was a co-chairman of Obama's 2008 campaign and now leads the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.
That hasn't stopped Romney.
"I think, by and large, you can just look at the things the president has done and do the opposite," Romney said earlier this year when asked about Israel.
Obama has riled his critics, including Romney, by urging the Israelis and the Palestinians to make good on their promises to bring peace to the troubled Middle East. Specifically, Obama publicly has chastised Israel for continuing to build housing settlements in disputed areas and has pressured both sides to begin a new round of peace talks based on the land borders established after the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.
That has raised the ire of groups such as AIPAC, which feel he's been disloyal to Israel. Obama's strained relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — a longtime Romney friend — hasn't helped that perception.
"The current administration has distanced itself from Israel and visibly warmed to the Palestinian cause," Romney told AIPAC's annual conference earlier this year, where Obama also spoke.
Previous presidents have sided with Israel on all points, at least in public.
"This is the most hostile president since the state of Israel was created," Romney supporter and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said recently. "He's demonstrated that hostility right from the beginning of his administration."
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