BEIT SHEMESH, Israel — After sundown, a group piled into an un-air-conditioned basement of a synagogue, sat on plastic chairs, and prepared for a two-hour debate over whether Mitt Romney would make a better president than Barack Obama.
Marc Zell, the chief Romney supporter, demanded that Obama release his college transcripts. Sheldon Schorer, the chief Obama supporter, accused Romney of being a “cowboy” on foreign policy matters. And in one heated exchange, an audience member brought up Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.
“It goes to his character!” the man said.
“There were good parts of Jeremiah Wright!” responded Schorer, a former chairman of Democrats Abroad in Israel.
“Hitler was great economically, too!” the man replied.
The event last week was part of a renewed effort to drive up turnout in the presidential election among Americans living abroad. There are some 250,000 American citizens living in Israel. Organizers for a voter-registration drive are trying to make the point that they are a vital constituency.
It is unlikely that they will make a significant difference in the presidential race, but because voters register in their last place of US residence, they could swing some congressional races.
There are probably 10,000 voters in Israel who could vote in Brooklyn, estimates Elie Pieprz, the national director for iVoteIsrael.
Americans abroad are not a vocal — or a particularly easy-to-track — constituency.
“We’re not going to show up at a town hall meeting; we’re not going to bump into them at the supermarket,” Pieprz said. “We’re likely not going to vote.”
Pierprz’s colleagues have tried to be creative to reach unregistered voters. They’ve targeted Little League games, July 4 barbeques, and bars where American sports are shown.
They plan to send letters to the Romney and Obama campaigns, requesting each to send a top surrogate for a debate in Israel.
Republicans have been more active in driving up interest. A few weeks ago, Ari Fleischer, press spokesman for former president George W. Bush, and Matt Brooks, director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, spoke to Republicans in Israel. Romney, who arrived in Israel Saturday, will bring attention to his campaign.
American voters living in Israel overwhelmingly voted for Senator John McCain in 2008. Of the 25 people who showed up for the Thursday night debate, only two raised their hands to say they voted for Obama in 2008.
The US economy rarely came up. Instead, the debate focused on whether Obama has cracked down enough on Iran’s efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon or whether he was insensitive by referencing Israel’s pre-1967 lines as a starting point for negotiations with the Palestinians.
“The bottom line is that this is the most hostile administration toward Israel since the Jimmy Carter presidency — and that’s quite an achievement,” said Zell, of Republicans Abroad Israel.
“President Obama is one of the best friends Israel has ever had in the White House,” Schorer countered. “Whatever Romney says are just promises. Obama has been there, backed Israel, and has done it again and again. He deserves to be reelected.”
Few, at least in that room, seemed to be swayed.Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.