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GOP, Democratic conventions will gain Jewish focus for similarities and gaps

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), left, Democratic National Committee chair and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives. (Photos by Gage Skidmore, graphic design by Uri Fintzy)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – Get set for a political double feature with much of the same plot, but with different outcomes for the issues that tend to preoccupy Jewish voters.

The same key words and themes will bounce around Jewish events at next week’s Republican convention in Tampa, Fla,. and at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C., the week after that: “pro-Israel,” “marriage,” “Jewish vote”  and “abortion.”

With the exception of “pro-Israel,” however, the content of the sessions will be as different as, well, Tampa (famed for its beaches and strip joints) and Charlotte (known for its seminaries and colonial history).

There will be telling programmatic differences as well. The National Jewish Democratic Council will maintain a recreational vehicle where convention-goers dropping by any time day or night are likely to run into one of the several dozen Jewish Democrats in the Senate and House. Prominent among those featured will be Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who chairs the Democratic National Committee.

Since Republicans boast only one national Jewish lawmaker, and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, is a busy guy, don’t expect a lot of face time. The paucity of Jewish lawmakers helps explain why the Republican Jewish Coalition tends to dub its events “pro-Israel” receptions and not “Jewish” events.

The presence of national and local Jewish organizations will be felt at both conventions.

The American Jewish Committee is hosting Jewish-Latino events in both cities – Florida’s substantial Cuban American community trends Republican, while the other Latino communities trend Democratic. Notably, however, the AJC’s only Jewish-African American event – aimed at a community that votes overwhelmingly Democratic – is in Charlotte.

This year’s there’s an AJC first for a convention: a Mormon-Jewish get-together cosponsored by the Tampa Jewish Federation, a nod to the interest in the faith of the presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney.

“This is not something we were doing 20 years ago,” Jason Isaacson, the AJC director of government and international affairs, told JTA. “But obviously, it’s a community America is being introduced to in new ways in the course of this election campaign.”

Most of the differences between the conventions have to do with an increasingly polarized polity. RJC and NJDC leaders agree that the overriding issue is one that will play out throughout the convention, not just in the Jewish forums on the sidelines: the economy.

“American Jewish voters first and foremost are Americans,” said David Harris, the NJDC president and CEO. “The things that concern American Jews are primarily the things that concern most Americans, the economy, jobs, everyday kitchen table interests.”

Jobs would also be the core of Romney’s message, said Matt Brooks, the RJC director.

“People are going to be looking to hear about his vision going forward,” he said. “Job creation, getting the economy moving.”

That said, social issues also will feature prominently, particularly among Jews at the conventions.

The Democratic convention platform committee, heeding submissions from a slew of groups that included the Anti-Defamation League and the NJDC, will endorse marriage equality.

The Republican platform frames the concept as an “assault on the foundations of our society”; language that gay Republicans sought that would have urged “respect and dignity” for gays was made vague, recommending instead “respect and dignity” for all Americans.

On abortion, according to the National Journal, the GOP will adhere to its 2008 plank. It declares that the procedure “is a fundamental assault on the sanctity of innocent human life” and has no explicit exemption for rape or incest. Romney has said he favors such exemptions.

The National Council of Jewish Women, which will be present at both events, has reproductive rights high on its agenda and is allying with like-minded members of both parties to promote them.

NCJW also will promote voter registration at both events; it strongly opposes efforts by some Republican legislatures and governors to tighten voter registration, saying that requirements of photo IDs discriminate against minorities and the elderly.

Likewise, both conventions will feature sessions on the perennial question of whether this election will be the one that sees a substantive shift in the Jewish vote.

Brooks, the RJC director, will speak on the topic to reporters. In Charlotte, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) will moderate a panel on the matter; with her will be speakers from J Street, the liberal pro-Israel lobby, NCJW and Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, the latter of which seeks to revitalize neighborhoods.

Republicans have been especially focused this year on moving Jewish votes, with the RJC running TV ads featuring three disaffected Jewish 2008 Obama voters who say they are committed to Romney. Evidence has surfaced that at least two of the three have been active in Republican politics in the past, regardless of their votes four years ago.

Speaking on background, officials in both parties have said that a showing of less than 70 percent for President Obama at the polls would represent a substantive undercutting of his support among Jews. Obama scored 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008 exit polls, although a deeper analysis of such polls this year by The Solomon Project, which examines the role of Jews in U.S. politics, sets his result at 74 percent.

Not surprisingly, both parties will feature events with “pro-Israel” in the title: The RJC will have a “Salute to Pro-Israel Officials,” and NJDC will have a similar event. (At past conventions, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has co-hosted these events; officials at AIPAC did not return multiple requests for information about what they planned for this year.)

“Pro-Israel” also is likely to be a theme during the prime-time speeches by candidates and other top officials. The differences will not be of substance; both parties and candidates are in virtually identical places when it comes to the Middle East peace process and confronting Iran.

Romney’s surrogates on Tuesday successfully pushed back attempts to introduce language into the GOP platform that would have undercut commitment to a two-state solution, BuzzFeed Politics reported.

Yet, expect each side to depict the other as hapless in defending Israel’s interests. Rep. Paul Ryan (D-Wis.), Romney’s running mate, leveled a typical GOP criticism of Obama at a town hall-type function on Monday in Goffstown, N.H.

“When President Obama made the 1967 borders the precondition for the beginning of negotiations, it undercut our ally,’’ The New York Times quoted Ryan as saying. “It made it harder for the peace process to move forward, and as a result we have no peace process.’’

Obama’s 2011 speech proffering the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations noted the necessity of land swaps, and included specific security guarantees for Israel.

For its part, the NJDC is running an ad noting Obama’s role in putting in place the Iron Dome anti-missile system, and featuring Israelis expressing their gratitude for its efficacy during a recent spate of rocket attacks launched from the Gaza Strip.

Jimmy Carter, the former president who has angered Israel and some U.S. Jewish groups because of his warnings that Israel’s West Bank policies could culminate in an apartheid state, will have a prime-time speech at the Democratic convention, to be delivered by video. Some groups, including the ADL and the Zionist Organization of America, have criticized the slot, saying Carter is divisive.

Differences of foreign policy emphasis will come up, too. Romney has preserved the two-state option in the platform and some of his surrogates have suggested that he is interested in advancing peace talks should he become president. Still, don’t expect the issue to be front and center.

Expect, instead, to hear a lot about Iran at the GOP event. Both candidates say that an Iran with a nuclear weapon is unacceptable, but the Romney campaign has suggested that Obama has not been assertive enough in making clear to Iran the consequences of not making transparent its nuclear program.

Finally, in Charlotte, J Street will join the Arab American Institute as well as Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) in promoting the two-state solution as a cornerstone of U.S. policy.