A New Fight For Arab Votes

Not long into last week's debate, George W. Bush made a brief, cryptic remark in response to a question about racial discrimination. "Arab-Americans are racially profiled in what's called 'secret evidence'," he said. "People are stopped, and we got to do something about that." The line probably flew right by most viewers. But to many Arab-Americans, it was the most dramatic moment of the campaign. "Within a few seconds I got 31 calls on my cell phone," says Osama Siblani, publisher of an Arab-American newspaper in Michigan. "People were excited."

It's not hard to see why. For years, Arab-Americans have been virtually invisible in presidential campaigns. In 1984 Walter Mondale returned campaign contributions from Arab-American leaders to avoid alienating Jewish voters. In 1996 Bob Dole canceled a meeting with Arab-American activists for similar reasons. But in this year's tight race, Arab-Americans are reveling in newfound power. Their votes could prove decisive in key states like Michigan, Ohio and New Jersey, where many of the country's 1.5 million registered Arab-American voters live. In super-close Michigan, Arab-Americans make up about 150,000 voters, far outstripping the state's roughly 40,000 Jewish voters.

Though both Bush and Gore are staunchly pro-Israel, each of the candidates has quietly but aggressively courted Arab-Americans with mailings, videos and town-hall meetings. Gore met with Arab-American leaders in Detroit more than a year ago and was scheduled to do so again last week when the riots in Israel forced him back to Washington.

Yet many Arab-Americans prefer Bush. With the help of George Salem, a Palestinian-born Washington lawyer, the Texas governor has raked in more than $1 million from Arab-American donors. Aides of GOP Sen. Spencer Abraham, the Senate's only Arab-American, urged Bush to hammer Gore on anti-Arab discrimination during the debate.

As it turned out, Bush got his facts mixed up. He confused racial profiling at airports--when security officers single out Arabs for questioning--with "secret evidence" cases, in which U.S. officials use a little-known federal law to detain suspected terrorists without disclosing the evidence against them.

But to many Arab-Americans, the confusion hardly mattered. "This was the first time any presidential candidate has ever mentioned Arab-Americans," says Khalil Jahshan of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. When hostilities broke out in Israel the morning after the debate, Bush's remarks boosted his image as the candidate more open to their concerns. This week pollster John Zogby will release a survey showing Bush beating Gore among Arab-Americans 40 to 28--a sure sign Bush's remarks about the group won't be his last.