FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA—
U.S. President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney debated U.S. foreign policy late Monday in Florida. The presidential race is so close, that one issue, or one voting block could decide the upcoming election.
Patriotic songs set the mood in a small theater in South Florida's affluent Palm Beach County where residents gathered to watch the presidential debate. Many here are Jewish-Americans, a small but politically active voting block in Florida that largely support Democratic candidates. During the debate, President Barack Obama addressed their number one foreign policy concern, the safety and security of Israel.
“First of all, Israel is a true friend. It is our greatest ally in the region. And if Israel is attacked, America will stand with Israel. I've made that clear throughout my presidency,” Obama said.
But relations between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been strained over how to deal with Iran's nuclear program. Republican candidate Mitt Romney said the president has exhibited weakness in his outreach to the Muslim world.
“Mr. President, the reason I call it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East and you flew to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to Turkey and Iraq. And by the way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to the other nations,” Romney said.
, the Director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami, is not convinced by Romney's argument.
“Obama went to the heart of the Arab world in Cairo in 2009 and basically said to those people, 'Look Israel is our friend and it will always be that way and the holocaust happened. Accept it. It doesn't make sense to deny the facts,” noted Sheskin.
But Romney's criticism of what he called "the president's late efforts" to impose economic sanctions to stop Iran's nuclear program did connect with Stanley Zerner, a Jewish-American and Democrat, who says he will not support President Obama.
“I think he has talked for four years. [Saying] 'We're not going to let Iranians build uranium plants. We're not going to let them get material to do that.' And here it is four years later and nothing has been done. Iran is close to building those plants, getting that atomic bomb,” said Zerner.
While the candidates are courting Jewish-American support, some Muslim Americans in Florida, like political activist Amber Chaudhry, say they are turning away from the pro-Israel bias in both campaigns.
“I understand that they support Israel. I support Israel but why can't you support Palestine," said Chaudhry. "I mean America plays such a big role in the whole Palestine/Israel issue. Why can't you be a fair arbiter of that issue?”
In this very close election, analysts believe both candidates have made a political calculation to compete for the larger number of pro-Israel votes among Jewish-Americans and Christian Conservatives even it if means losing some Muslim-American support.