BOCA RATON, Fla.—Bill Clinton could have delivered those 537 votes.
Though he was wan, soft-voiced and stiff from heart surgery, the former President’s two appearances here in South Florida served as a reminder of his potency as a campaigner. Al Gore, who lost by that narrow margin here in 2000, kept Mr. Clinton at arm’s length. Whatever the flaws in the campaign of Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Senator is not making that mistake.
After speaking to a get-out-the-vote rally in Miami Monday night, Mr. Clinton traveled north to Boca Raton, where, just after noon on Tuesday, he spoke for 32 minutes to a largely Democratic crowd at the conservative Jewish temple B’nai Torah. Wearing a white yarmulke with green trim before a crowd of Florida Jews numbering in the thousands, Mr. Clinton turned on the scornful drawl to discuss President George W. Bush’s tax cut and his recent television ad suggesting that a vote for Senator Kerry would turn the country over to the wolves. Yet his endorsement of the Senator was a little less than reassuring, when he explained that Kerry’s message on security issues was “Vote for me and I’ll give you an unpleasant but more workable solution.” And Mr. Clinton’s one gaffe was his repetition of Mr. Kerry’s misstatement during the first debate that “we had to shut down the subway under Madison Square Garden” during the Republican convention.
The former President addressed an abiding weakness in the Kerry campaign: the perception among some Jewish voters that President George Bush has been too good on Israel not to support.
“We’ll start with the obvious,” Mr. Clinton said. “What does it mean for American-Israel relations if John Kerry becomes the President of the United States?
“There is no doubt in my mind that his commitment to the security of Israel—including its qualitative military superiority—would be unstinting,” the former President responded to his own question. “You can rely on it—you can take it to the bank.”
Persuasion is something of a lost art in an American politics that is seen as a contest of energy between two warring camps, and it’s rather late in the day for Mr. Kerry to be working to rally a core group in the Democratic Party. But Mr. Clinton’s speech made clear that the aim of his appearance was persuading the undecideds, not just rallying the converted. Before the beginning of the speech, the Kerry campaign’s liaison to the Jewish community in South Florida, Charles Glick, overheard an acquaintance tell a reporter that he was leaning toward Mr. Bush because of the President’s staunch support of Ariel Sharon.
“Would you like to sit up front?” Mr. Glick asked the undecided voter.
One young Republican stood on the road outside the synagogue making a silent argument against Mr. Kerry. He held a sign with six photographs: On one side were Mr. Bush, Rudolph Giuliani and Mr. Sharon; on the other, Mr. Kerry, Mr. Clinton and Yasir Arafat.
Mr. Clinton told the crowd he’d reminded the protester of a statistic: “1998 was the first year in the history of the state of Israel when no Israeli citizen died from a terrorist attack,” he said.
Mr. Clinton spoke for 32 minutes Tuesday, in his longest public address since his September 6, and the Boca Raton crowd reacted, well, the way crowds always react to Mr. Clinton: The white modernist synagogue quickly descended into a mob scene, with women climbing on top of seats to get the former President’s autograph and shake his hand.
“He presents the case for John Kerry in such a rational manner. He does not appeal to your emotion—he appeals to your intellect,” Florida’s retiring senior Senator, Bob Graham, told The Observer.
Does he deliver the message better than the candidate himself can?
“It’s easier for a third party to say some of these things,” Mr. Graham demurred.
Two undecided Jewish voters told The Observer that Mr. Clinton had pushed them in Mr. Kerry’s direction, but it remains to be seen whether his visit will make the difference in a state where Mr. Bush held a lead in most polls a week before the election. More than anything, it revived a sense of Democratic nostalgia captured even by the obnoxious puppet of NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Triumph the Comic Insult Dog.
In the spin room after the final Presidential debate in Arizona, the dog puppet and its handler encountered Joe Lockhart, the former White House press secretary under Mr. Clinton.
“Joe Lockhart—I mean, if John Kerry tonight in the debates were to get oral sex behind the podium, you’d be the go-to guy to spin it,” Triumph said.
“What do you mean by that? How do you define that?” responded the agile Mr. Lockhart.
“Ah, those were the days,” said the dog.