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Obama Courts Jewish Voters In Florida

Barack Obama on Thursday promised "an unshakable commitment to Israel's security" as he sought to reassure doubtful Jewish voters. He also said he hopes to help improve relations between American blacks and Jews.

In a passionate appearance at a synagogue, Obama courted Jewish voters by reaffirming his opposition to negotiating with the militant Palestinian group Hamas and said talks with Iranian leaders could help strengthen Israeli security.

On the verge of clinching the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama is now introducing himself to Florida, where Democrats agreed not to campaign during the primary because the state violated the party rules by holding a primary in January.

Some Jews fear Obama's willingness to speak with Middle Eastern nations that oppose Israel, while others wonder whether he is a closet Muslim.

Obama asked his audience to hear him out.

"Judge me by what I say and what I've done. Don't judge me because I've got a funny name. Don't judge me because I'm African-American and people are concerned about memories of the past," he said.

"When I am in the White House, I will bring with me an unshakable commitment to maintaining that bond between the United States and Israel and an unshakable commitment to Israel's security," he told the audience of several hundred at B'nai Torah.

Obama said he is distressed by strains between blacks and Jews in America, two groups "who have been uprooted and been on the outside." Martin Luther King Jr. would not have been able to accomplish so much in the battle for civil rights without help from Jewish supporters, he said.

"I want to make sure that I am one of the vehicles by which we can rebuild those bonds," the Illinois senator said.

In his remarks, Obama touched on everything from the persistent e-mail rumors about his faith and patriotism to his controversial former pastor and his strategy for reducing Iran's world influence.

E-mails circulating have claimed falsely that Obama is a Muslim and that he refuses to salute the American flag. Obama is a Christian who attends Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago and he occasionally wears an American flag pin.

But his relationship with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, poses another problem. Wright has published pro-Palestinian comments and praised Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader who has harshly criticized Jews.

Obama has denounced both Farrakhan and Wright, but the connections have alienated some Jewish voters.

Obama has said he should not be held responsible for Wright's comments any more than Republican candidate John McCain should be held responsible for statements by fundamentalist minister John Hagee. On Thursday, McCain rejected Hagee's endorsement, and Hagee later withdrew it.

An adviser to the Palestinian group Hamas recently said he hoped Obama wins the presidency, and McCain has tried to use that against Obama. That, coupled with Obama's stated willingness to meet with Iranian and Syrian leaders, has raised questions about whether a President Obama would protect Israel amid the turmoil of the Middle East.

Obama said he wouldn't negotiate with Hamas and that talks with Iran would actually improve Israeli security.

Demanding concessions from Iran in exchange for offers of economic aid would give America "the moral high ground," he argued. That would make it easier to build international support for sanctions to pressure Iran into halting its nuclear program and its support of terrorism, he said.

Obama said Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah have only grown more powerful under President Bush's approach to the region.

"How is it that the Bush-Cheney-McCain policy has been good for Israel?" he asked.

In response, McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said Obama's proposals are "naive and weak leadership."

"It's weak judgment for Barack Obama to believe that an unconditional summit with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would not strengthen the worst elements in Iran, embolden the tyrant's standing in the region and put the world's security at risk," Bounds said in an e-mail.

Obama's visit to B'nai Torah lacked the pep rally atmosphere of many of his town hall meetings. He got an enthusiastic reception, but also some tough questions about his name, his policies toward Iran and how he could handle Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

One person asked if he would consider every qualified person as a potential running mate "even if his or her spouse is an occasional pain in the butt?" Obama chuckled at the reference to Hillary Rodham Clinton, but said it was too soon to start talking about running mates.

Shirley Kann, a retiree from Boynton Beach, said Obama has a lot of work to do to build support among Jewish voters. She said she knows people who believe Internet gossip about him and who hesitate to vote for a black man. She doubted that he can win them over.

"I don't see it. These are my friends who aren't too smart," she said.