BOCA RATON, Fla. – Courting a key voting bloc, Sen. Barack Obama campaigned at a synagogue Thursday, hoping to persuade Jewish voters to support “a black guy” with “kind of a Muslim-sounding name.”
Jettisoning his standard stump speech, he talked instead about his support for Israel and the appeal of the Zionist dream to a biracial child whose family moved often.
“The idea that one could hang on to one’s sense of balance and have a sense of family and, despite being an outsider, somehow still had a place to connect to … was very powerful to me,” he said.
Jewish voters typically make Florida competitive for Democrats, but this year could be different. Obama has had to deal with an e-mail campaign falsely claiming that he is Muslim. The former pastor of his church, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, has praised Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Obama has had difficulty with older voters, and Republicans are attacking him for his willingness to negotiate with Iran.
Obama acknowledged these hurdles and added another: “One of the painful things for me over the past several years,” he said, “has been to see the strains between the Jewish community and the African-American community.”
He said he wanted to regain “that sense of a common kinship, of a people who’ve been uprooted, a people who’ve been on the outside – that strikes me as the very essence of what we should be fighting for.”
Obama arrived at Congregation B’nai Torah to sustained applause, and several people wore buttons with his name in Hebrew. But possible tensions quickly emerged.
The first questioner praised Obama, then noted that a friend had said: “If Barack Obama would change his name to Barry, I would vote for him.”
Obama replied that as a child he was nicknamed Barry. He is named after his Kenyan father and as a young man chose to use his full first name to acknowledge his heritage.
“Let’s be honest, part of what raises concerns is you’ve got a black guy named Barack Obama,” he said. “So people say, ‘He’s got kind of a Muslim-sounding name, and we don’t know what’s going on here.’ “