WASHINGTON – Republican Sen. Norm Coleman (search) is on the road again.
Some 30 years ago, Coleman was a rock group roadie for the band Ten Years After, setting up the stage and steadying the bass amplifier during concerts for the 1960s musicians.
Today, Coleman is a roadie of a different sort. The freshman senator, one of only three Jewish GOP members of Congress, is traveling around the country appealing to Jewish groups to support President Bush and hoping to reverse a nearly century-long trend of Jewish support for Democrats.
The Democrat-turned-Republican talks up Bush's efforts to combat terrorism and the president's support for Israel, but Coleman also focuses on his own personal transformation -- a Brooklyn-born Jew who switched parties -- in hopes of swaying Jewish voters.
"Compassionate conservatism (search) is a Jewish ethic," the Minnesota senator tells his audiences.
Coleman has made nine appearances before Jewish groups in states such as Florida and California since taking office in January, the kind of activity -- and destinations -- that would put Coleman in position for any political leap in 2008 if Bush is re-elected.
Coleman, who makes another appearance later this month, says he hasn't coordinated his schedule with the White House, but expects to when the campaign gets into full swing.
The 53-year-old senator, who jokes that before he went to college -- "I never met either a Republican or a Lutheran" -- gives his testimonial with the passion of a convert.
"I became a Republican to make come to life the ideals I had as a Democrat," Coleman told a gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition (search) in Washington last month. "I believe in equality and social justice. The key to justice and equality is for mom and dad to have a job."
Coleman's roots are hardly Republican. During his college days, he protested the Vietnam War and attended the Woodstock rock festival. After receiving his law degree from the University of Iowa, Coleman worked in the Minnesota attorney general's office. He later served as Democratic mayor of St. Paul, Minn., before switching to the GOP in 1996, halfway through his eight-year term.
Last fall, Coleman defeated Democrat Walter Mondale, a replacement for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, in a close election, and this year joined Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the other Jewish Republicans in Congress.
In his appearances, Coleman has faced some tough questions about Bush and the administration's pressure on Israel to make concessions as part of the "road map" for peace with the Palestinians. The latest violence in the Middle East is certain to prompt tougher questions at the next appearance.
One audience member told Coleman last month that the road map should have called for a purge of Palestinian Liberation Organization (search) officials.
"You gotta better plan? ... I want to put my hope in something," Coleman responded.
Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which has booked Coleman at several events, said the senator's story resonates with some Jews. "His personal, intellectual, philosophical journey is one that so many in the Jewish community are undertaking right now," Brooks said.
Among them is Geoffrey Greene, a 55-year-old physician from Columbia, Md., who came to hear Coleman speak last month.
"The main thing for me was the security issue," said Greene, who quit the Democratic Party last year. "Security and the survival of Jews and Israel became the key issues for me."
But Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council (search) and co-editor of the 2001 book, Jews in American Politics, disagrees with Coleman's analysis.
"Senator Coleman's philosophy might make sense if there was truly a compassionate conservative agenda in the Republican Party," Forman said, arguing that Jews agree with Democrats on most domestic issues.
Although Jews make up only about 2 percent of the population, the Jewish vote could be critical in next year's presidential election because of the concentration of likely Jewish voters in competitive states such as Florida and Pennsylvania.
In the 2000 election, Bush garnered only 19 percent of the Jewish vote, according to exit polls, but Republicans hope to expand those numbers.