For the second consecutive day, Barack Obama on Friday stood up in front of one of the toughest groups of voters in America’s toughest, large-swing state in what is rapidly turning into a full-scale general election campaign.
By Edward Luce in Miami
On Friday in Miami it was Cuban-Americans, who have been one of the most stalwart backers of the Republican party since they fled to the US after the Castro revolution in 1959.
On Thursday, it was Florida’s Jewish community, whose vocal support for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary has been reinforced by rumours about Mr Obama’s association with radical Palestinian groups and his allegedly lukewarm support for Israel.
Mr Obama chose to address the groups at the earliest possible stage in the general election campaign, though 10 days still remain before the conclusion of the increasingly overshadowed Democratic primary.
With both groups, Mr Obama had to deal with questions about his promise of pursuing “direct diplomacy” by holding talks with the leaders of Iran, Cuba and other adversaries.
The Republican nominee, John McCain, has signalled that his campaign will relentlessly criticise Mr Obama’s foreign policy inexperience and the alleged naivety of promising to hold talks with leaders such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad and Cuba’s Raúl Castro.
“John McCain has been going around the country talking about how much I want to meet with Raúl Castro, as if I’m looking for a social gathering,” Mr Obama told the Cuban American National Foundation on Friday.
“Now, let me be clear. That’s never what I’ve said, and John McCain knows it. After eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions.”
In what analysts of the Cuban-American community believe is a potentially vote-rich manoeuvre, Mr Obama on Friday reiterated his promise to lift travel restrictions to the island that confine Cuban-Americans to one visit every three years. He also promised to scrap restrictions on remittances that can be sent to Cuba. Obama strategists believe they can win over younger and second-generation Cuban-Americans by scrapping these longstanding US policies.
“Now, I know what the easy thing is to do for American politicians,” said Mr Obama. “Every four years, they come down to Miami, they talk tough, they go back to Washington, and nothing changes in Cuba. It’s time to let Cuban-Americans see their mothers and fathers, their sisters and brothers. It’s time to let Cuban-American money make their families less dependent upon the Castro regime.”
Mr Obama’s interaction with Jewish voters on Thursday night was perhaps played for even higher stakes. By agreeing to an open question and answer session with an unscreened congregation in the B’Nai Torah synagogue in Palm Beach, Mr Obama risked a hostile reaction from an audience that had been targeted with a constant stream of email rumours about his alleged anti-semitism.
“Obama is no friend of Israel,” proclaimed a banner outside the Jewish Temple. But the congregation, many of whom said they had voted for Mrs Clinton in Florida’s unauthorised primary in January, had already been softened up by a series of speakers that included a rabbi, a Florida state senator and a local representative. All pointed out that Mr Obama had been described as a “friend of Israel” by the American-Israeli Political Action Committee – the most powerful American-Jewish lobby group.
And all pointed out that Mr Obama had the same stance on Israel – for example he opposes the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees – as Mrs Clinton.
“Don’t believe all the crazy things you read on the internet,” said David Aronberg, a local Democrat. “Barack Obama is a good friend of Israel.”
Campaign officials are confident Mr Obama will improve on his 61 per cent level of support among Jewish voters, which is far below the 76 per cent John Kerry, the former Democratic candidate, got in 2004. But they also know the campaign of character assassination is likely to get worse. Mr Obama won over most of the congregation – receiving two standing ovations – with a humorous and self-deprecating performance. “Don’t believe everything you get on the internet,” he said. “Do you believe those emails that promise to enhance the size . . ?” he asked, his voice drowned out by laughter.
The Financial Times