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Arab American Community Shifting to Democrats, Not Targeted by Either Campaign

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Most polls these days show President Bush's approval ratings hovering around a dismal 25 percent. However, Orange County resident Woody Aghnatios considers him a hero. Aghnatios, a Lebanese Christian, said Bush did more for Lebanon than any other president when he supported the movement in 2005 to end Syrian occupation.

"He was supportive of Lebanese independence," Aghnatios said as he sat on a bench with his family at the Lebanese Cultural Festival in Van Nuys last month. Now, he plans to vote for another Republican, Sen. John McCain, in the upcoming presidential elections.

Like Aghnatios, most Arab Catholics queried in a recent poll by Zogby International preferred McCain over Democrat Barack Obama. However, Arab Americans in general preferred Obama in the survey, and are voting increasingly Democratic, said Nadine Wahab, public affairs manager for the Washington-based Arab American Institute.

Such trends could have major implications in the upcoming presidential election, as key battleground states such as Michigan, Virginia and Ohio have substantial Arab American populations.

Exact numbers on Arabs in the United States are hard to determine, but pollster John Zogby, brother of Arab American Institute founder James Zogby, estimates there are at least 3.5 million nationwide. The 2000 U.S. Census only identified about 1.25 million Americans who described themselves as Arabs.

A 2002 poll conducted for the Arab American Institute estimated that 63 percent of Arab Americans were Christians, about one-third of which were Catholic. About one out of five Arab Christians surveyed identified themselves as Eastern Orthodox and one out of 10 said they were Protestant.

Zogby's poll of 501 Arab Americans last month showed that more than half of respondents favored Obama in a two-way race compared to one-third who preferred McCain. Candidate preferences were nearly reversed among Arab Catholics, who tended to support McCain. Meanwhile, Orthodox Christians slightly favored Obama, and a vast majority of Muslims - more than 80 percent - said they preferred the Democratic senator.

A 2006 report from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars - indicated that Arab Americans generally have voted conservatively on economic and social issues, but remain largely independent.

Hani Bawardi, a professor at University of Michigan-Dearborn who studies Arab Americans, said Arabs who came to the U.S. before World War I and their offspring have became part of the country's mosaic, and many immigrants who came to the country between World War I and 1965 have tended to vote conservatively. However, immigrants who have come within the past 40 years are more diverse in their nationality and political views, he said.

Meanwhile, some groups of Christians identify more with their faith or nationality than with their Arab ancestry. For instance, Maronites - or Lebanese Catholics - sometimes identify themselves as Phoenicians rather than as Arabs, Bawardi said.

Despite the diversity among Arab Americans, there are still some common trends. Most Christians and Muslims alike desire a Palestinian state, stability in Iraq and Lebanon, and safeguarding of civil liberties, Wahab said. Those joint values are listed in a national declaration created for the Arab American Institute's "Yalla Vote" campaign.

Wahab also stressed that most Arab American issues are the same as other Americans'. Last month's Zogby poll indicated that the economy was the top concern among Arab American respondents, followed by the Iraq war and health care.

"We are Americans," Wahab said. "We are not a fringe element."

Lebanese Cultural Festival attendee Rouida Vahed, a Lebanese Christian, said the economy is her biggest concern. Vahedi's family business recently closed shop, and she said she hopes Obama can bring more economically prosperous times in the vein of President Bill Clinton. She also wants the Iraq war to end.

"I love (Lebanon), but I need someone to take care of me here," she said.

By contrast, lobbyist and Lebanese Christian Pierre Maroun supports the "war on terrorism" and is a staunch supporter of McCain. Maroun is secretary general of the American Lebanese Coordination Council, a group that lobbies on behalf of Lebanese security issues. He noted that for the first time in election history, the Republicans have a committee that specifically consists of American Lebanese residents, rather than merely Arab Americans.

Security issues, as well as social issues such as homosexuality and abortion, also are a concern for many members of the Egyptian-based Coptic Orthodox Church, who often suffered persecution for their faith in their native Egypt.

Boula Ishaka, a Los Angeles resident who attends St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Church in Los Angeles, recalled that he was not allowed to display the cross around his neck at school while growing up in his native Egypt. He said he fears that Obama may be sympathetic to Muslim causes.

The Rev. James Soliman, a priest at Holy Virgin Mary Coptic Orthodox Church in Los Angeles, said many Coptic Christians are wary of Obama's family's Muslim roots, believing he is a Muslim even though he is a professed Christian.

"They're afraid of anything related to Islam," he said.

Bawardi remains cynical about the impact of the Arab American vote in part because of such divisions. He said Arab Americans also are not well organized, and they tend to engage in local politics rather than in national elections. He added that he does not expect Obama or McCain to publicly seek Arab support on radio or television stations.

"No (presidential candidate) would say that they think Arab Americans are upstanding citizens and that they want their vote," Bawardi said.

Still, statistics show that Arab American populations in some battleground states are large enough to affect the outcome of those elections. Zogby has estimated that Arab Americans make up as high as 5 percent of the voting population in Michigan, a key battleground state, and 2 percent in Virginia. They also make up more than 1 percent of the voting populous include Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

And while the Arab American vote is by no means monolithic, a clear pattern has emerged since the 2000 elections, Wahab said.

"There's been a shift from Republican to Democrat," she said.