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A Woman's Perogative at the Ballot Box
Kim Decker and her teenage son, Bennett, waited in a packed auditorium last month at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel for the start of an election program that featured some prominent Jewish supporters of the president, an audience with some hecklers and plenty of rhetorical fireworks.
But mother and son managed to discuss President Barack Obama's record civilly, even if they didn't completely agree.
Bennett, who will soon be a freshman at Cheltenham High School, gives Obama high marks on Israel while his 44-year-old mother says the president hasn't been quite as pro-Israel as she had hoped.
As a Jewish woman, Decker is a member of two highly courted groups in this presidential campaign.
She doesn't like the direction of the economy and was intrigued by the fact that Republican challenger Mitt Romney was taking the time to visit the Jewish state.
As a registered Democrat, she remained on the fence for months but recently decided she will vote for Obama. Her decision, she said, ultimately came down to social issues such as abortion and the fact that the next president may get to fill several vacancies on the Supreme Court.
She couldn't vote for a candidate who would "nominate someone for the Supreme Court who isn't pro-choice," she said.
Focus on the women's vote -- and talk of a gender gap -- have been mainstays of presidential politics since at least the 1980s. But this year, the women's vote and issues deemed important to female voters appear to be garnering extra attention.
For months, pundits have focused on Romney's need to close the gender gap in key states in order to capture the White House. Pundits have suggested that Obama could lose the male vote and still win the White House if enough women back him.
At the same time, the Obama campaign is pushing hard to retain his commanding lead among Jews in swing states, including Pennsylvania, even as critics continue to question his record on Israel. While there's no all-out media campaign targeting Jewish women, each side has a message.
For the Republicans, the pitch to Jewish women is that the economy has been devastating for working women, Romney represents a better alternative -- and he'd be a stronger friend to Jerusalem as well.
For Democrats, the talking points have been that Romney represents a threat to reproductive choice and some of the popular provisions of the Affordable Care Act -- and that Obama has been a true friend to Israel.
Sammie Moshenberg, director of advocacy for the National Council of Jewish Women, a non-partisan group that does take liberal stands on many social issues, said that Jewish women "reflect the population of women overall and are probably typical to their age and class."
"They are concerned about the economy. Women have the added burden of making 77 cents to the dollar" as compared to men, Moshenberg said, adding that social issues like abortion are also perennial concerns for Jewish women.
In a poll released last week by Quinnipiac University, Obama led Romney among Pennsylvania's female voters 59 percent to 35 percent, while men in the Keystone State favored Romney 50 percent to 47 percent.
In a survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in April, 66 percent of Jewish women voters nationwide said they wanted to see Obama re-elected, compared to 57 percent of Jewish men.
In the same survey, both Jewish women and men cited the economy as their top election issue, with 56 percent of Jewish women picking that issue along with 46 percent of Jewish men.
Just 2 percent of women cited abortion as their top issue, as opposed to zero men. Only 3 percent of women picked Israel as their chief concern, compared to 4 percent for men.
Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami, said that available data makes a strong case that "Jewish women are more likely to vote for Obama."
Statistically, Jewish Republican women may represent a minority within a minority. But there's no doubt the Republican Jewish Coalition has a strong core of female members trying to convince everyone they know to work to defeat the president.
Among them is Lynne Levin of Cherry Hill, N.J., who has long been active in the RJC as well as local and statewide Republican politics. Earlier this year, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie named Levin, an occupational therapist, to the State Council of Developmental Disabilities.
Levin, who has three grown children, argues that Obama has been a disaster for Israel and the economy. But the pro-choice Republican voiced support for Romney for the same reason many social conservatives worry about him -- the perception that he's not one of them at heart.
"He's not an extremist," said Levin. "I don't believe those things are in his heart. I think he'll tiptoe around social issues. I don't think he is going to do anything extreme, but he has the extreme right nudging at him.
"The economy is very important. I'm going to be 60. I'm good financially. I'm worried about my children," she added. Of Obama, she said: "I am frightened for this country if he gets in another four years."
Decker sees it differently. She cited Romney's perceived drift rightward over the past five or six years as another reason she doesn't plan to vote for him.
"I liked the Mitt Romney who was governor of Massachusetts, not the Mitt Romney who is the current presidential nominee," she said.
Leslie Richards, a Democrat and one of three commissioners who run Montgomery County, said that despite the pre-eminence of the economy in this year's election, issues such as abortion and health care won't be "on the back burner," especially in Pennsylvania.
Betsy Sheerr, a longtime Democratic and pro-Israel activist, said that social issues are "going to be a big motivator in this election, but the economy is going to be the deciding factor."
Michelle Twersky, Pennsylvania director of political affairs for the Orthodox Union, said that abortion and gay marriage are not bread and butter issues this year for most Orthodox voters, a demographic that's far more likely to vote Republican than the Jewish community at large.
"I have similar issues as men. As an Orthodox person, my No. 1 concern is, 'Is he going to be good for Israel?' " said Twersky, 24, who declined to say who she'll vote for because her organization is non-partisan.
Poll after poll has shown a tight race with relatively few undecided voters. In that kind of environment, every vote counts.
Among those Jewish female voters up for grabs is Jodi Wilenzik, a 38-year-old Center City lawyer originally from Bucks County. Wilenzik favors Romney's approach to the economy and growing private business. But she sides with Obama on most social issues. When it comes to Israel, she's not sure who has the better approach.
Four years ago, Wilenzik, who considers herself an independent, remained undecided until Republican nominee John McCain chose then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. That, she said, tipped the balance toward Obama.
This year, she expects it might take even longer to make her choice and could come down to a "game-time decision" in the voting booth.
"I think something is going to hit me," she said. "I think what I am going to do is make my little pro and con lists and hopefully that helps me."