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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans see a growing chance to make inroads in 2012 with Jewish voters, whose traditional loyalty to the Democratic Party has been tested by doubts about President Barack Obama's policies on Israel.
Obama has been criticized by some U.S. Jewish leaders for being too tough on Israel. Those views were amplified when Republicans won a special House of Representatives election in a heavily Jewish district of New York this week, rattling Democrats.
Obama won nearly eight of every 10 Jewish voters in 2008, but a slip in 2012 would jeopardize his re-election drive in battleground states like Florida and Pennsylvania, where Jewish voters are an important swing bloc.
"There is a new group of Jewish voters who voted for President Obama in 2008 who are not so sure about that today, and their votes are in play," said David Harris, executive director of the non-partisan American Jewish Committee.
"The Jewish community is really quite divided about Obama. My guess is there aren't a lot of people left in the center," he said.
Critics point to Obama's strained relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a May speech saying Israel's 1967 borders should be the starting point for negotiations and his failure to visit Israel as president while traveling to Egypt and other Arab countries.
Republicans have jumped to take advantage of the worries among Jews, emphasizing their support for Israel and trying to plant seeds of doubt about Obama as they approach the 2012 battle for the White House.
"He's got a real set of challenges in the Jewish community as he heads into 2012 that are going to be a real drag on him," said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
An outside Republican group put billboards up around New York City before Tuesday's special election, showing a smiling Obama shaking hands with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and declaring Obama was "Not Pro-Israel."
Texas Governor Rick Perry, an evangelical Christian who leads polls in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, published an opinion column in the Wall Street Journal and Jerusalem Post on Friday criticizing Obama's stance on Israel.
"Unfortunate errors by the Obama administration have encouraged the Palestinians to take steps backward away from peace," Perry wrote. "When the Obama administration demanded a settlement freeze, it led to a freeze in Palestinian negotiations."
A recent Gallup poll shows Obama slipping with Jewish voters, falling to a 55 percent approval rating and 40 percent disapproval rating. That approval rating was still about 15 percentage points higher than with the population at large.
Obama's re-election campaign has been concerned enough to appoint a Jewish outreach director, and campaign officials have worked to ease concerns in the community.
Alan Solow, an Obama fundraiser and Jewish leader in Chicago, said he has been explaining Obama's record on Israel and has found a receptive audience.
"I would say with people who are familiar with the president's record, they are very comfortable," he said. "I think Israel is an important issue, but public opinion polls show that for most Jewish American voters, it is not the most important issue."
Democrats say doubts about Obama among Jewish voters are overstated, and the concerns are as much a reflection of voter anxiety about high unemployment and a stumbling economy as a result of his Israel policy.
Rather than any specific policy issue, some Jewish leaders said they sense doubts in the community about Obama's commitment to Israel.
"People in the Jewish community have had differences with George W. Bush, with Bill Clinton," said Dov Hikind, a Democrat and Orthodox Jew who serves in the New York state assembly and voted for Republican Bob Turner in the special election.
"There was never an issue whether, fundamentally, we felt that president was a friend, even if there were public disagreements. With Barack Obama, that is a sense that people have," he said.
But Obama might catch a break from Republicans in 2012 if the party nominates a staunch social and religious conservative candidate like Perry.
"The more moderate the eventual Republican candidate is, the more likely he will attract new Jewish voters who voted for Obama in 2008," said Harris, of the American Jewish Committee.
Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York, Tom Brown in Miami, Eric Johnson in Chicago; Editing by Eric Beech