WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – John Kerry (search) boasts of flying an Israeli jet and calls out in Hebrew during Florida campaign stops, trying to keep the state's large Jewish population from straying to President Bush.
In 2000, Jews voted 4-to-1 for Democrats Al Gore (search) and Joe Lieberman (search), the first Jewish candidate on a major party's presidential ticket. But Bush has built a reputation as a strong backer of Israel, and he has courted Jewish voters in hopes that even a slight increase in support could make a difference in another tight election.
Kerry told voters in West Palm Beach Monday that he will do a better job than Bush of "holding those Arab countries accountable for funding terrorism."
"We'll do a better job of protecting the state of Israel than they are today," Kerry said. Supporters held signs distributed by the campaign that said "Jewish Americans for Kerry" and wore stickers and T-shirts that said "Kerry-Edwards" in Hebrew.
Spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said Kerry wants to reassure Jewish voters that he will continue his record of fighting for Israel. "By and large the Jewish population in Florida knows who's on their side and who isn't," she said.
Kerry supporters cheered when he said he'd been to Israel several times and touted his voting record in the Senate. "I have a 100 percent record on every resolution, on every vote, on every appropriation, on everything that has made a difference to Israel's qualitative military edge," Kerry said.
"I've had the privilege of flying a jet in Israel, learning firsthand how tight that security is, how close the borders are, how tiny and fragile it is," Kerry said. "I've climbed to the top of Masada and I've stood on the top of Masada and yelled out as the Air Force recruits and others used to from the side of that cliff, the words `Am Yisrael Chai!"'
Kerry's use of the Hebrew cry that means "The people of Israel live" delighted the crowd. The symbolism of Masada — the desert mountain where Jewish rebels chose suicide over capture — still looms large in Israel as soldiers come at the start of their military training to pledge allegiance to the state.
Sharyn Wachs, wearing one of the campaign's Hebrew stickers on her shirt, said Kerry seemed "really united" with Israel and she was touched by his story of climbing Masada since she's done it twice herself. She has been angry with Bush's invasion of Iraq and left the rally to go cast her vote for Kerry since early voting began Monday in Florida.
"Let's just hope he can come through," she said. "That's the thing — they can say anything to get elected."
During his campaign stop Monday, Kerry didn't tell the extended version of his story of flying the jet, as he did on Oct. 9 in Davie, Fla. He said then that he had started to fly over Egyptian airspace but then did a loop in the air. Kerry, who trained as a pilot in his college days, had been taken aloft by a colonel in an Israeli Air Force jet.
Kerry promised that he would stay engaged in the Middle East and help create a Palestinian entity with which Israel could negotiate. "You don't have one today, so you have to build a fence and you have to do what you are doing," he said.
Bush-Cheney campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said Kerry had a different position when speaking to an Arab-American gathering near Detroit one year ago — he said the security fence separating Israel from the Palestinian territories was a "barrier to peace."