ORLANDO, Fla. - Ever since President Bush narrowly won Florida four years
ago, Democrats have meticulously courted key voting blocs that strategists
believe could help reverse the party's fortunes in 2004 -- showering
attention on seniors, African Americans, Jews, and Cuban and Haitian Americans.
On Sunday night, a surprising new ethnic thread wove itself into Florida's
ever-complicated political fabric: the frustrated Arab American.
Business owners, physicians, lawyers and others -- furious over the Bush
administration's post-Sept. 11 policies that many believe unfairly target
Muslims and Arab Americans in the government's quest to root out terrorists
-- huddled in a hotel ballroom across the street from Disney World to
demonstrate how much they wanted a change in the White House.
The meeting, intended to be a bipartisan affair sponsored by the
Washington-based Arab American Institute, turned into a cheering session
for Democratic nominee Sen. John F. Kerry -- illustrating a dramatic shift
in a traditionally Republican group.
"I thought Bush was another Ronald Reagan on a small scale for what he
believed in," said Ashley Ansara, president of a clinical research company
in Orlando. "I found out he's no Reagan. Not even close."
He said this would be the first presidential election since he moved to the
U.S. in 1973 that he wouldn't be voting Republican.
Sunday night's fervor first surfaced in the spring, when more than 150 Arab
American voters packed onto chartered buses bound for the University of
Central Florida in Orlando, where local Democratic leaders were gathering
to elect delegates to the party's national convention.
Some had voted for Bush in 2000. Others had never voted at all. But when
they arrived at UCF that morning, they made an important statement by
claiming three of the eight delegate slots from two congressional districts.
Kerry's gains, though, could prove thorny in Florida, where Democratic
Party politics has long been characterized by close ties to the state's
massive Jewish community and staunch support for Israel.
Some Democrats say privately they fear alienating Jewish voters with an
overt effort to reach Arab Americans.
The Massachusetts senator has already encountered trouble on that front,
when he told the Arab American Institute a year ago that the security fence
being constructed by Israel in and around the West Bank was a "barrier to
peace." Later, he assured miffed Jewish leaders that he believed the fence
was a legitimate tool for self-defense against terrorism.
But Kerry also has promoted a Senate voting record that has received a 100%
rating from pro-Israel lobbyists..