The top Republican Party official got polite applause at a gathering of Arab American leaders, while his Democratic counterpart got a standing ovation.

What a difference four years – and a transforming national crisis – has made.

Bush, whose substantial Arab American support in 2000 helped him win swing states, has plummeted in Arab American polls.

“The community has changed. It was almost the other way around in 2000,” said pollster John Zogby, himself an Arab American.

Democrats have taken note of the change, and eight of the nine Democratic candidates for president gave speeches last weekend at an Arab American Institute conference in Dearborn, Mich., which boasts a heavy concentration of Arab Americans.

It helped that some of the states with the heaviest Arab concentrations – including Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida and Pennsylvania – are considered up for grabs for Democrats or Republicans in 2004.

Candidates pitched their appeals to issues dear to the hearts of Arab Americans – including opposition to how Bush is conducting the post-war operation in Iraq and the perceived dangers to civil liberties of the USA Patriot Act – but artfully avoided one issue.

Most candidates tried to bypass saying anything substantive about the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But they were pressed to do so at times, and some of the most tense moments at the conference came when candidates were asked to comment on the security fence Israel is building in the West Bank.

Former Gov. Howard Dean´s appearance was most telling. He earned loud cheers for his condemnation of the war in Iraq and his endorsement of civil liberties, and got a standing ovation at the end of his speech. Dean had time for one question. It was about the barrier.


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