On stage, the secretary of commerce is up to his credibility in a pacification program trying to explain the inexplicable.
In the audience, the aged accountants and furriers and wholesalers and shopkeepers who once were New York are listening but not believing.
"All right, all right -- you shake your hands at me when I speak," says Philip Klutznick, who has taken leave of his job as president of the World Jewish Congress to become, at age 72, a freshman in Jimmy Carter's Cabinet.
"But you know the Talmud. You know the arguments among the rabbis. They are every bit as complex as this . . . I believe what the president said . . . I who was there, who heard it and watched it -- and for whom this Cabinet office does not mean 10 cents at this stage of my life -- I believe him . . . And I say do not judge him by a single act!"
Alex Ostrowsky, 82, the flooring shop owner from Lower Manhattan, interjects a summation of his own. "Acchhh! The damage was done. My vote goes against him."
So it goes at Philip Klutznicks's night at Point East, the condominium complex in North Miami Beach that according to Condo Annie, who is officially Annie Ackerman, the diminutive organizer who lives there and runs the politics of the place, is composed of 1,900 registered voters, 95 percent of whom are Democrats, 98 percent of whom are over 65 years old. 99 percent of whom are Jewish, and a somewhat higher percentage of whom are at this moment mad at Carter.
Ever since the Carter administration voted on March 1 for that United Nations resolution that contained anti-Israeli language Jerusalem -- and then came up with the explanation that the vote was just a communications glitch -- the heavily Jewish condominium belt along Florida's southern Atlantic coast has become a focus of national political attention.
Over at the Kennedy for President headquarters they have begun a leaflet blitz of the condos and have bought radio time in this primary that they know they cannot win and had once written off as a zero expense state. And Tim Hanan, the Florida coordinator, sent out an emergency request for Edward M. Kennedy to change his schedule and come to Florida to stump the condo belt -- not because he thinks it will help them win in Florida, but because of the impact that the act will have on the upcoming primaries of Illinois and especially New York.
"My recommendation was not based on Florida but how the national media coverage of Kennedy appealing to the Jews will play up North," Hanan concedes. "It would play stronger in Illinois and New York than if Kennedy was to stay up there and campaign in those states."
The Carter campaign in South Florida, caught with its organization down, has been seeking in vain to learn how much damage has been done. The South Florida Carter officials had not bothered to telephone or target voters in significant numbers before now, so they cannot tell the national and state Carter officials who have been calling them at headquarters just how many Carter "number ones" (committed voters) they have lost in the condominiums. But they have made 800 phone calls into the condominiums in the past two days in a hasty effrot to understand what has been happening and they concede that there has been what one Carter man called "Jewish slippage."
There has indeed. In that audience at Point East, random interviewing found not one person who was anxious to come to the defense of President Carter -- and very few who were willing to say they definitely intend to vote for Carter on primary election day.
But Carter's future with the Jewish voters may not be as hopeless at this would seem to indicate. For the registered Democrats of Point East, while expressing strong disapproval and distaste for Carter and his conduct in this latest controversy, were often equally unfond of Kennedy.
Carter has never been comfortable with Jewish voters, nor they with him. They have supported him in the past, however, and they have been appreciative of his efforts to bring peace to the Middle East.
But now Carter has apparently driven many of the Jewish voters into the category of the truly undecided. At Point East, most of these people of advanced years -- who look forward for months to the activity of voting on election day -- will come out of the undecided ranks on Tuesday to cast a ballot for someone; but, right now, they just do not know who it will be.
"I was going to vote for Carter -- but I won't do that now," says Samuel Goldstein, 78, the Queens, New York, stationery store owner. "But I can't bring myself to vote for Kennedy." He pauses. "You know what I'm going to do, you wouldn't believe this, but for the first time in my life, I'm going to vote Republican. I am voting for the white-haired man on the white horse -- John Anderson."
Annie Ackerman, the condo organizer, is pro-Carter. "A week ago I would have said Carter would win here with an overwhelming percent of the vote," she says. "Now I don't know. The reaction here is very hostile."
Carter's secretary of commerce realized just how intense the action was as soon as he began fielding questions at Point East the other night.
They were polite to Klutznick -- he had made it clear in his soft-spoken, Yiddish-speaking way that he is, by age and origin, one of them. But they spoke their minds.
"I submit to you that the vote was intentional," said one questioner. His neighbors applauded. And when Klutznick replied, "It is your opinion and you are entitled to it; I think you are wrong," some in the audience shouted, "No!"
The questioners argued that they believed United Natons Ambassador Donald McHenry would have understood immediately that his instructions to vote for the resolution meant a clear shift in U.S. policy on Jerusalem. tThey argued that he thus would naturally have questioned his superiors about the instructions before casting his vote.
So it could not have been just a mix-up in communications, the questioners argued. "It had to be an intentional signal to Israel," said one Point East resident. And when the secretary of commerce responded by launching into a lengthy explanation of United Nations voting procedures, one in the audience remarked, "You see, he does not answer."
The chaos that has enveloped the quest for the Jewsih vote in Florida will not mean the difference between whether Carter or Kennedy carries the state in Tuesday's primary election. Carter will win handily in Florida, advisers to Carter and Kennedy and all of the public opinion polls agree.
But the United Nations controversy could conceivably cause enough people to vote against Carter in the South Florida Atlantic Coast districts in the counties of Broward and Dade -- here almost one-third of the voers are Jewish -- to give Kennedy a chance to carry one or more of the districts.
Florida will send 100 delegates to the Democratic convention. The primary rules provide that any candidate who receives at least 15 percent of the vote in each congressional district will be given at least one delegate.
Thus Kennedy could be expected to pick up at least 15 delegates in Florida (one in each district) with just a minimal showing. And he probably will win at least two delegates in the five districts that stretch from Palm Beach southward.
So the battle for the Jewish votes in south Florida really is a battle over whether Kennedy will be able to pick up only a handful of additional delegates by perhaps carrying one or more districts.But the larger prize of such a minor Kennedy victory in south Florida would be the cash and carry propaganda advantage that Kennedy could carry with him out of Florida and cash in two weeks later in the New York primary.