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Jewish voters to play a key role in GOP primary

By Melissa Dribben, The Philadelphia Inquirer –

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Dressed in his tennis whites, Sid Dinerstein hunches over the Palm Beach Post’s scramble, Sudoku, and crossword, saying they’re the most worthwhile part of a paper he dismisses as “another left-wing rag.”

Fortified with a can of Diet Sierra Mist, the 65-year-old chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party says he usually hits the courts five times a week, but as the national political ship sails towards Florida, he has had to cut down to three.

His phone keeps ringing. Mitt Romney has led in polls here, but that was before Newt Gingrich’s big win in South Carolina. Florida’s Republican primary is Jan. 31.

Gingrich’s victory means the Sunshine State will see “two titans slugging it out big-time for the next 11 days,” Dinerstein said Saturday night. “It’s going to be great political theater.”

The state’s nearly 640,000 Jews are just 3.4 percent of Florida’s population. But because they vote in extraordinarily high numbers, they are 6 to 8 percent of Florida’s turnout, says Ira Sheskin, who runs the University of Miami’s Jewish Demography Project.

In this part of Florida, Sheskin estimates Jewish turnout at 95 percent. “Jews aren’t just registered,” he says. “They actually vote.”

The vast majority are Democrats. But in a state with a Jewish population third, behind only New York and California, and a county with one of the largest concentrations of Jews in the state, Dinerstein has clout.

A Brooklyn native, Dinerstein and his wife, Esther, the daughter of Holocaust survivors from Poland, moved to the gated community of Ballenisles 19 years ago after selling his financial services company at a tidy profit.

Andy Warhol-style portraits of their two daughters grace the living room. The house is decorated with bold graphics and avant-garde sculpture, the wet bar stocked with Veuve Clicquot, the floor-to-soaring-ceiling windows overlooking one of three golf courses.

“The advantage of being the first of the first people in a community like this is, you get to pick your lot,” Dinerstein says. He is talking real estate, but it could fairly be taken as a metaphor for his political philosophy. He hates handouts.

“When you say you need to help me because I’m deserving, you are taking money from others. It started with Civil War widows.” The government should have said no and left charitable giving to private charities. “Once you’ve breached that, it’s a matter of finding more deserving people. Poor children. Seniors. It’s all unconstitutional.”

Vastly outnumbered politically, Republican Jews have kept a low profile here — particularly in country club communities where “condo commandos” act as ward leaders and can influence the quality of life.

“I supported McCain in the last election,” said an 85-year-old Republican from Del Ray Beach. “And I paid a penalty for it where I live.” He and his wife declined to speak on the record about the GOP primary, saying they did not want to invite blowback from their friends — all Democrats.

That anecdote inflames Dinerstein, who insists such Republicans don’t realize how many kindred souls are secretly living among them.

Nine years ago, when he became chairman of the local GOP, he made his battle cry, “Find your voice.”

“When you are a Republican,” he says, “people beat on you. They exclude you from their (golf) foursomes. They exclude you from their card games. They tell you to keep your opinions to yourself because you’re insulting their religion of being a Democrat.”

He calls Jewish Democrats “aggressively rude with the intent to silence.” He tells of being booed and hissed at a debate in Boca Raton. “It happens all the time.”

Liberals, he says, “believe you can’t have conservative Jews and conservative blacks. They have decided what people are supposed to think by group.”

Then he begins his own strafing: Liberal Jews are “intellectually bankrupt.” Those who support Israel and vote for President Barack Obama “might as well burn their money in the backyard.”

Intense and wiry, Dinerstein slaps his hands on the table to underline his points.

Despite his efforts to show them the light, he says his late parents remained liberal Jews, and so have all his siblings.

In his binary view, a voter is either Republican and loves America, or liberal and wants to create a Soviet state.

Esther, his childhood sweetheart, hears his familiar riff and offers a gentler take: “All I want is for our grandchildren to experience the America that I did after leaving a socialist regime.”

Dinerstein kisses her and spryly hops into his Mercedes convertible with the “SID GOP” plates for the two-minute drive to meet friend Barry Dickman for tennis.

Dickman, 71, a giftware importer from Villanova, greets Dinerstein with something he read in the New York Post. “It’s about how Obama is intertwined with this group that hates Israel.”

Before they can discuss the matter, a man walks up and whispers in Dinerstein’s ear. “I don’t give any more to the Federation,” Dinerstein replies curtly, explaining that he used to donate $10,000 a year to the charitable Jewish Federation — till “they decided to be involved in politics and gave money to Clinton.”

He and Dickman move on, pointing out courts where club members Venus and Serena Williams practice, and marveling at how fluid the Republican race has become. They wonder who will gain from the exit of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the erstwhile front-runner.

“Where do you think his votes will go?” Dickman asks.

“Two months ago, I would have said 80 percent to Romney,” Dinerstein says. “Now, I’m not sure.”

As GOP county chairman, he remains neutral in the primary but says Romney and Gingrich would be good for Israel.

To be sure, that is a subject American Jews care deeply about, but it is not the top issue they weigh in voting for president, says Bill Gralnick, who for 33 years was South Florida regional director for the American Jewish Committee.

Like most voters, he says, their main concern is the economy. The current GOP candidates face other problems attracting them, says Gralnick — such as what he calls the anti-intellectual tone of campaign rhetoric, and a stinginess about social programs.

Nevertheless, he says, “I run into more and more Jews, both older and younger, who tend to at least think Republican.”

Dinerstein, who likes nominees to be good family men, isn’t sure how the storm over Gingrich’s ex will affect Florida’s vote. For his part, the county chairman dismisses concerns about Gingrich’s past infidelities as “mainstream-media stuff.”

As Dinerstein and Dickman begin playing, another friend, Kenny Seidel, stops by.

Seidel, 69, is also a lonely Republican in his family. A builder from the Washington area, he says: “My son is a firm believer in man-made global warming. I’m not.”

But he has his qualms.

“To be perfectly honest with you, I’m disappointed in the whole field. … The Republicans make me ill with the social issues. But the most important thing is the defense of the country, which is being taken away from us.”

The men take a break in the shade, and the talk turns to Romney and why his rivals are demanding that he reveal his tax returns.

“They know the public doesn’t understand a lot of finance and taxes,” Dinerstein says, reasoning that Romney’s 15 percent rate is on money that was already taxed at a higher rate. “He shouldn’t be paying any taxes on it. What the Democrats are about is the destruction of wealth.”

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