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.