WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.—Rush Limbaugh is right up the road. He lives in Palm Beach and broadcasts from a studio he calls "the Southern Command." Today's subject, for the fourth or fifth day in a row, is why Limbaugh reacted to the president's support for a Muslim community center near the site of the 9/11 attacks by calling him "Imam Obama." It's hilarious, says Limbaugh: He started calling the president an imam as a "media tweak." And anyway, who could prove that Obama wasn't a Muslim? It was fair to ask, don't you think?
Two years ago, the rumor mill churned with stories about Obama's religion and fears about how he'd treat Israel. The 22nd District of Florida, a pleasant suburban isthmus that includes the city of Boca Raton and has 75,000 to 100,000 Jewish residents, was one of the places where this was supposed to cut into Obama's margin. It didn't, and he won while Rep. Ron Klein, D-Fla., cruised to a 10-point win over Allen West, an African-American and a retired Army lieutenant colonel. In November, the two are slated for a rematch.
Things are tougher for Democrats now. In a short interview just before he spoke to the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County's Jewish Community Relations Council, Klein says that Obama's image with Jewish voters in the district had "clearly deteriorated" since 2008. "It's settled in a little bit," says Klein. "This [New York] mosque thing didn't help. But [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu coming out and saying they had a good meeting, that helped."
Klein starts to explain himself further. "There's definitely some—" he starts to say. He starts a new line of argument: "Listen, I'm making my case. When I agree with the president, I agree with him. I didn't agree with him on some of his positions on Israel. I do agree on his Iran approach."
Klein talks about his positions on the Park51 Community Center (against, though they have the right to build) and Iran (he'd support an Israeli strike on nuclear facilities) as he explains why he's going to weather the Republican backlash and defeat West. Why won't West be able to hurt him on issues like this? Well, one example: Last week, West got fed up with a tracker from the Florida Democratic Party who had been filming his speeches for juicy YouTube clips, and succeeding. West attacked the tracker for "Gestapo-type intimidation tactics." Trouble was, the tracker was Jewish, and his grandparents had perished in the Holocaust. And this is the kind of district where the current issue of a local newspaper, the Jewish Journal, has stories about the families of Holocaust survivors on Pages A1 and A3. Klein's campaign pounced while West's campaign spun and dug in.
"Where does he come up with this?" asks Klein. "My view of the way he comes across is that he wants to go to Washington to bust heads. That's not what people here want! They want something to get done."
This election is going to test that. So far, the 2010 cycle has not penalized Republican candidates for over-the-top attacks on Democrats. West clearly falls into that category. West, a client of Base Connect, a Republican firm that rakes in money for candidates with direct mail, has raised more than $4 million to Klein's $2.5 million. That's already eight times as much as West raised two years ago. He's been singled out as a "Young Gun" by the National Republican Congressional Committee and endorsed by Sarah Palin, in the latter case because of his military experience.
Democrats respond to that with a sigh of relief. There were more established Republicans in the district who passed on the race. Had that rarest of politicians, a "generic Republican," decided to run, Democrats feel like they'd be in more trouble. But they say they can portray West as too odd and too angry for the district, while Klein cuts to the right and against President Obama on the issues that West obsesses over the most, like national security and the threat of Islam. While Klein talks about terrorism in strategic terms—he'll tell the Palm Beach Jewish group exactly why he supports an Israeli strike on Iran—West talks about Islam in clinical, voice-of-doom terms. Long before the mosque controversy, when Maj. Nidal Hasan was charged with murders at Fort Hood, West rushed out of the gate with a statement calling this a terrorist attack. *
"Our soldiers are being brainwashed," said West. "The horrible tragedy at Fort Hood is proof the enemy is infiltrating our military."
The polite thing to do at the time was act shocked! And horrified! At how "crazy" West was. But the bet West was making was that Americans—especially the ones in Boca Raton and West Palm Beach—agreed with him and lacked a leader who'd express what they were thinking. That's been a good bet this year, and West keeps making it.
"You have to have individuals in Congress that have been in the Islamic world," he says. "Who have read and studied the Koran and the principles thereof, so that we can have an intelligent debate about this, because this is about a totalitarian ideology with a political design." (I spoke to West last week, over the phone. His campaign did not respond to media requests this week, which surely has nothing to do with how Democrats are trying to wrap his gaffes around his neck.)
The lesson of the last few weeks is that more people nod their heads at sentiments like West's than nod their heads at the happier talk favored by Democrats. The Democratic response in Florida's 22nd District: Find another way to portray West as crazy. The guy with the video camera is only one part of a rugged operation that tracks West's every move for evidence of him talking about Democratic tyranny or flubbing his facts about taxes (he's claimed several times that Democrats want to raise the top marginal rate to 70 percent, which is around 30 points higher than they're proposing) or—this happens the most often—using cartoonishly violent language to describe what he wants to do to his political enemies, like ripping a gavel from Speaker Nancy Pelosi's hand.
Even more so in some other places where Democrats are trying to save themselves by tying Republicans to political madness, the media are on their side here. A reporter for the Broward/Palm Beach New Times jokes that West's campaign speeches consist of "noun, verb, Nazi Germany." The Palm Beach Post endorsed West's no-chance primary opponent David Brady on the grounds that he "hasn't urged Americans to seize bayonets and start a revolution against the new tyranny in Washington." West responded by saying he had "every intention of making the Palm Beach Post pay for endorsing David Brady." What does that even mean? Democrats don't know, but they hope it scares people.
The Klein campaign understands how well West plays with conservatives. It's just hoping that the place where this stuff works is FoxNewsLand or Limbaughland—someplace where West can be a star but not a congressman representing the sleepy communities Jerry Seinfeld once called "God's waiting room."
Are they right? Stephen C. Dettor, a Republican businessman whose company builds tennis courts, says he voted for West in the primary because he "believes in the fiscal conservative message." But he saw Klein at a candidate forum and saw him as "moving to the right" to capture those angry voters who might be moving to West. And Klein says he's aware of businessmen in the district who are passing up chances to help West. His hope is that he can make people more afraid of West than they are of the things West is afraid of.
One of those people—potentially at least—is Carmela Kalmanson, a retiree who expresses her fears to Klein at the meeting of Jewish leaders in West Palm Beach. "After the Second World War we had a lot of patriotism," says Kalmanson. "And then we had the McCarthy period. That's what happened after 9/11. There was unity, and now there's fear. There's so much anger, and that's a frightening place to be."
"So your comment," says Klein, "is that the inmates have taken over the asylum." He gets a big laugh.