Arab-Americans turn against the president

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Arab-Americans turn against the president
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By Alex Barker
Published: July 15 2004 20:20 | Last Updated: July 15 2004 20:20

A growing number of Arab-American voters in four battleground states oppose the re-election of President George W. Bush, according to a poll released on Thursday.

The survey underscores the difficulties the president faces with a community that broadly supported his election campaign in 2000.

In a three-way race, 51 per cent of those surveyed by the Arab American Institute (AAI) said they would vote for John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, and 13 per cent for Ralph Nader, the independent aspirant of Arab-American heritage. Only 24 per cent planned to vote for Mr Bush in November.

Five hundred voters were surveyed in the swing states of Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where an estimated 1.1m Arab-Americans live.

A sharp drop in support for Mr Bush is evident when Thursday's survey is compared with polling conducted four years ago.

Exit polls from 2000 indicated that 45 per cent of all Arab-Americans - about two-thirds of whom are Christian - voted for Mr Bush, as did 58.5 per cent of Muslim voters.

James Zogby, president of the AAI, calculates these figures indicate a shift of 225,000 likely Arab-American Bush voters to the Democrats in the four battleground states.

Only 6 per cent of Muslim Arab-Americans in the latest poll said they wanted to see the president re-elected.

During the 2000 election, Republican campaigners courted aggressively this long overlooked, socially conservative constituency, along with other non-Arab Muslims.

"[Bush] met three times with Muslim leaders before [Al] Gore was even returning our calls," says Salam al-Marayati, the director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a group that supported Bush in 2000.

In one such meeting, Mr Bush claimed that "under the Clinton and Gore administration, Arab-American air travellers have experienced harassment and delay simply because of their ethnic heritage . . . Such indiscriminate uses of passenger profiling must stop."

After the experience of presidential candidates such as Walter Mondale returning donations from Arab-Americans in 1984 and Michael Dukakis refusing the endorsement of Arab-American groups in 1988, the attention was a welcome sign of increasing political influence.

Former and current Republican Arab-American voters cite the erosion of civil liberties under the Patriot Act, the lack of progress made in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the invasion of Iraq as their primary concerns with the administration.

The most recent AAI poll shows that 9 per cent of those questioned say the president is doing an excellent or good job in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, an all-time low.

More than half of those who chose Mr Kerry cited being "against Republicans" as the main reason for their decision.

Alex Saleh, an Arab-American attorney from Michigan, says he was a conservative Republican before the last election but "after four years of Bush, I now consider myself a very liberal Democrat".

Arab-American Republicans are also concerned that the community may no longer be a priority in the president's re-election strategy.

"It's not like the 2000 campaign," says Khalid Saffuri, director of the conservative Islamic Free Market Institute.

"They paid much closer attention to the community [in 2000]," he added.

A former administration official says the shift in focus has been driven by a realisation that Arab-American anger may be insurmountable.

The risk of negative press had led to the belief that "maybe it was not worth the political headache involved in engaging [Arab-Americans]".

"The calculus is that for every Arab-American or Muslim vote gained, Jewish support or funding would be lost. They see it - falsely - as a zero-sum game."