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Romney, Thune make pitch at RJC retreat

At the Republican Jewish Coalition’s winter leadership retreat in Las Vegas, it was the absence of certain likely candidates for president that had the crowd most excited.

While names like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann generate enthusiasm at some other conservative gatherings, their absence over the weekend here had the Jewish crowd giddy that ahead of the 2012 race, the Republican Party may be retreating from the divisive hyper-conservatives who have frustrated Jewish attraction to the party in recent years.

At this GOP gathering the heroes were probable presidential hopefuls who are likelier to sway Jews from their traditional Democratic home and toward Republican candidates with positions on issues like the economy and foreign policy.

Matt Brooks, RJC’s executive director, told a questioner that the social issues that have driven Jews away from the Republican Party in the past — abortion, gay rights, church-state separation — were hardly registering now.

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From left, potential GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney chats with Mel Sembler and Sheldon Adelson, major backers of the Republican Jewish Coalition, at the RJC’s winter leadership conference at the Adelson-owned Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas on April 2. Ron Kampeas

“Social issues get a large role in campaigns when there’s not a lot of other issues at the forefront,” he said. Instead, the issues now are America’s economic health and job loss, Brooks said. “That’s what will drive the narrative,” he said.

The economy — and foreign policy, particularly Israel — certainly were the issues driving the narrative at the RJC event.

The two likely candidates to address the audience in the open forum, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, wove both the economy and foreign policy into their challenges to President Obama, whom they and just about everyone else pledged to make a one-term president. Notably, neither man mentioned social issues.

Both lambasted Obama for what they said was the distance he had established between the United States and Israel, breaking with a tradition of decades of closeness.

Romney said Obama’s attempt to appear evenhanded in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations led him to “castigate Israel while having nothing to say about thousands of rockets being launched into Israel.”

The Obama administration has, in fact, condemned Hamas rocket attacks on Israel, although its tense exchanges with Netanyahu’s government over settlement-building have received much greater attention in the Jewish community.

Thune said the administration’s emphasis on settlements made it appear that they were the reason peace talks were not advancing while ignoring Arab recalcitrance and the Iranian nuclear threat.

“America’s ally is now and always will be the State of Israel,” he said. “I think the Obama administration sometimes forgets that fundamental fact.”

Thune has said he is not running, but his supporters will not count him out and his appearance at this event and others like it fuels speculation that he may return to the race. Dan Lederman, a Jewish state senator from South Dakota, joked that he had already reserved the VP spot on the Thune ticket.

Romney seemed transformed from his failed 2008 bid for the GOP nomination, when he was faulted for appearing scripted and uncertain in his opinions. He barely consulted a single sheet of notes, and spoke in detail not only on his strengths — health care and budget management — but about the threats facing Israel from Iran and about the peace process.

He subtly cast what he undoubtedly will play as his strength — business and executive experience — into every topic. Obama, he said, does not understand negotiations, a lack that led him to concede too much at the outset to the Russians in negotiating a missile drawdown in Europe.

“He could have gotten a commitment on their part, ‘We will not veto crippling sanctions on Iran,’” a reference to the Republican critique that U.N. sanctions approved last year on Iran were not sufficiently far-reaching. Instead, Romney said, Obama made it clear from the outset that he was willing to end missile defense programs in Poland and the Czech Republic, a key Russian demand.

“The consequence of not understanding negotiations has been extraordinarily difficult,” Romney said.

Romney was relaxed and jokey. Insisting that the tax cuts he would advocate targeted the middle class, he said, “I’m not looking for ways to make rich people richer” — and then added, glancing over at Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate and RJC mainstay sitting in the front row, “Sorry, Sheldon.”

He also had a practiced answer on health care, facing a vulnerability that has dogged him until now: The plan he championed in Massachusetts, which reduced emergency room-generated costs by mandating health care, was a model for the plan passed last year by Obama and which Republicans want to repeal.

“Romneycare” was good for Massachusetts, he said, but as president he would not impose it on all 50 states. Later he added, to laughter, addressing Obama: If the president truly modeled his plan on Romney’s, “Why didn’t you call me?”

One questioner asked Romney if, like Donald Trump — another putative GOP candidate — he would fight “scrappy” and not behave as a “gentleman” as he had done in previous campaigns. The reference appeared to be to Trump’s adoption of arguments questioning Obama’s citizenship credentials. Romney was adamant he would not stoop to “innuendo” in a campaign.

The most telling moment in Romney’s appearance was when he called his wife, Ann, to the stage.

“Mitt and I can appreciate coming from another heritage,” she said, referring to their Mormon background. That “another” was a sign of the difficulties that minorities have in assimilating into a party that is still perceived as predominantly white and Christian.

The perception that “Republican and Jewish” is an oxymoron continues to dog the RJC, despite its successes, including upping the Jewish Republican vote from barely 20 percent in 2008 to more than 30 percent in November’s midterms. Much was made of a show of hands of first-timers at the confab — about a third of the room — and speaker after speaker urged them to bring friends and family.

The event was held at Adelson’s palatial Venetian casino hotel, much of it taking place on Shabbat. Observant Jews who attended rushed from services, prayer shawls over their shoulders to events during the day Saturday, dodging oblivious, skimpily dressed cocktail waitresses attending to the crowds.

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Romney’s deal-closing skills appealing to Jewish Republicans

For all the talk among pundits of Mitt Romney’s charisma problem, Romney’s Jewish supporters say what’s most inspiring about the Republican presidential candidate is that he actually does rather than just talk.

Furthermore, the very characteristics that doomed the former Massachusetts governor’s 2008 presidential bid and dogged his re-entry into the 2012 race are what have made Romney the front-runner among Jewish Republican givers, especially his readiness to compromise in order to seal a deal.

“He’s got a lot of common sense, he’s got a success pattern in his life,” Mel Sembler, one of Romney’s principal Jewish backers, said on Tuesday after accompanying him on a fundraising swing in Florida that netted the campaign $1.8 million.

“I like a man who’s been in business for 25 years, who’s made a payroll and who understands what the real world is like,” Sembler said.

It is no coincidence that Romney’s Jewish backers come out of the business community, say those who know him. Unlike much of the 2012 crop of GOP candidates, who appeal to the party’s Tea Party insurgency with a language of no compromise, Romney knows how to close a deal with allies and rivals alike.

Nancy Kaufman, who directed the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston when Romney was governor from 2003 to 2007, said his willingness to work with Democrats in the commonwealth’s legislature was critical to passing health care reform in Massachusetts.

“No matter how hard he tries to distance himself, now health care in Massachusetts is a model for the country,” said Kaufman, who currently guides the National Council of Jewish Women. “We were all surprised by his leadership. It wasn’t what we expected.”

Republican rivals have slammed Romney for helping to shape a Massachusetts policy that goes further than the policy that President Obama signed off on in subsidizing care. Romney has said that he opposes Obama’s national health care reforms mainly because they override the authorities of states to form their own policies.

The National Jewish Democratic Council recently called Romney the “ultimate political chameleon” for what it said were his efforts to distance himself from the health care policy of Massachusetts.

Romney’s campaign told JTA that he is too busy now for an interview.

Romney, the son of former Michigan Gov. George Romney, who ran for president in 1968, has made his business acumen a central plank of his appeal to Jewish backers. In his inaugural “Jewish” speech in his last run, to an audience of Yeshiva University donors in April 2007, he cast his career successes as a buyout czar as a matter of “chutzpah.”

“I spent most of my life in the private sector, first by consulting the major corporations, and then by starting and acquiring companies,” he said. “It takes chutzpah, I believe, to buy a company from somebody else, someone who knows the business inside out, someone who has decided that now is the best time to sell, someone who has hired an investment banker to hawk it to everybody in the world, and then to think that you — having paid more than anyone else in the entire world — you somehow think you are going to make a profit on your investment.”

He added, “What we did is done every day by you in the private sector.”

It is an approach that helped Romney win what Matt Brooks, who directs the Republican Jewish Coalition, calls the “fundraiser primary”: the race to raise cash.

“They see him as a real leader on the economic stuff,” Brooks said of Romney’s supporters.

In addition to Sembler, a shopping center developer, Romney has the backing of other prominent Jews, including investment manager Lew Eisenberg, investor Sam Fox, and lobbyist Wayne Berman.

Another emphasis for Romney in his appeal to Jewish backers is the shared experience of being in a religious minority. Romney, 64, is a Mormon.

“Mitt and I can appreciate coming from another heritage,” his wife, Ann, told the Republican Jewish Coalition in April.

Romney is much more focused this time around, Brooks says, with a campaign intent on taking on Obama and not trading potshots with his rivals.

“One of the reasons candidates do better historically is they learn the lessons from the past,” Brooks said. “They’re doing things very differently, they’re being much more strategic and much more focused than in 2008, much leaner, not being everywhere all over the place and overexposed.”

Romney refused to criticize his party rivals in his first GOP debate, although polls of Republicans show him virtually tied with Michele Bachmann, a Tea Party favorite. He makes a point of saying that Obama did not inherit the financial crisis, but he does charge him with making it worse. At an RJC event in April, Romney pointedly refused to make an issue of Obama’s birth.

It is an approach that some Republicans privately deride as “gentlemanly.”

Romney’s backers say he seems more comfortable in his skin this time, extemporizing more and making jokes at his own expense. Sometimes he tries a little too hard. At the RJC event in Las Vegas, he made a point of saying that he is a country music fan.

Kaufman says she is still not sure where Romney stands on abortion rights, which NCJW backs. As a candidate for governor in 2002, Romney famously appeared wounded when his rival challenged his pledge not to interfere with a woman’s right to choose. Now he calls himself “pro-life” and supports cutting funds to Planned Parenthood, although he will not sign on to a broader pledge to cut funding to hospitals that provide abortions.

While Romney has been a more moderate critic of the Obama administration than some of his rivals, he has come out swinging forcefully on Israel and Middle East issues. In May, he accused Obama of “throwing Israel under the bus” after the president called for Israel to hold talks with the Palestinians based on 1967 lines, with land swaps. And at the Las Vegas RJC event, Romney accused Obama of not being tough enough on Iran and not following through with the threat of crippling sanctions.

JTA

 
 

Perry surges, Romney slips

Mixed reviews among GOP Jews as new party frontrunner emerges

Adam KredoWorld
Published: 02 September 2011
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Prominent Jewish Republicans say Texas Gov. Rick Perry, shown here speaking at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans in June, will have little trouble courting Jews if he wins the Republican nomination next summer. Gage Skidmore

WASHINGTON—Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s surge to the front of the GOP presidential pack has Jewish Republicans reckoning with a field that suddenly looks much different from what it did just a few weeks ago.

According to the latest Gallup poll, 29 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents favor Perry, with 17 percent supporting Mitt Romney, the previous front-runner.

A former Massachusetts governor, Romney is regarded as the business-friendly favorite of establishment Republicans. He also has been popular with Jewish donors to the GOP. While Perry’s harder-edged conservatism and religion-tinged rhetoric may make him a tougher sell to centrists, however, prominent Jewish GOPers say he will have little trouble courting Republican Jews should he win the nomination at next summer’s convention.

“I think it’s safe to say that everyone, Jews included, was surprised” to see Perry eclipse Romney, said Tevi Troy, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former liaison to the Jewish community in George W. Bush’s White House.

On the other hand, he said, “I have not seen evidence that Republican Jews are uncomfortable with Perry. Everyone will, of course, have their preferences in the primaries, but GOP Jews are in ABO mode—they will support ‘Anyone But Obama’ come November of 2012.”

Republican Jews do not have to be enamored of Perry in order to vote for him, says Noam Neusner, a former Bush speechwriter who succeeded Troy as the White House’s Jewish liaison.

“If he’s the nominee, Republican Jews will support him,” Neusner said. “They may not be enthusiastic about him, but they’re not enthusiastic about Romney, either.”

Mark Lezell, a lawyer, Republican fundraiser and Romney supporter from Rockville, Md., called the Perry surge “unexpected,” but the “smart bet remains with Romney,” he said.

“In the Jewish community right now, the money is overwhelmingly with Romney,” Lezell said. “At this point I feel very good about Romney getting the nomination.”

Republican candidates such as U.S. Reps. Ron Paul of Texas and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota are still doing reasonably well in the polls—the Gallup survey pegged their support at 13 percent and 10 percent, respectively—and they have helped push the tenor of the campaign to the right, observers say. The race appears to be narrowing, however.

“This race is between Romney and Perry and the other candidates are filler for campaign reporters,” said one Jewish political strategist who requested anonymity.

Both Perry and Romney are seen by Jewish Republicans as strongly pro-Israel, as is the rest of the Republican field, with the notable exception of Paul. “You’ve got a bunch of pro-Israel people and then Ron Paul,” Troy said. “They’re all out elbowing each other to say, ‘I’m the pro-Israel guy.’”

Jennifer Rubin, a conservative Washington Post blogger, approvingly noted that Perry mentioned Israel in his campaign’s kickoff speech, criticizing President Obama’s policies toward the Jewish state.

Romney, for his part, has built a reputation as a candidate who eschews the type of religious appeals that make Jewish voters of all political stripes uncomfortable, several Jewish Republicans noted.

He “doesn’t appear to frighten people in the Jewish community,” Troy noted, adding that Romney is “defined in the Jewish community, and in a positive way.”

Romney’s focus on the economy, jobs, and national security appeals to conservative Jews and potential swing voters, Jewish Republicans said.

The strategy “makes him potentially a more comforting alternative to a swing voter than a candidate who spends more time talking about issues that might be more confrontational to certain voters,” said Dan Schnur, a California-based political strategist who served as the communications director for Arizona Sen. John McCain during the 2000 GOP presidential primaries.

Perry, on the other hand, has adopted a range of conservative social stances, and puts his faith front and center. That type of rhetoric, Schnur said, “might make it more difficult for [Perry] to attract the Jewish voter—even someone who agrees with him on economic matters or issues relating to Israel and the Middle East.”

Troy, however, suggested that Perry is getting a bad rap. “I think Perry-phobia exists in many places, and the Jewish community is one of those places,” Troy said. “A lot of people say to me, ‘I’m afraid of this Perry guy,’ but I don’t think there’s any basis for it.”

Perry’s supporters point to his record as governor. Perry has more than a decade of executive governing experience—more than even Romney, noted Steve Papermaster, a Jewish Perry devotee from Texas.

Perry also appeals to broad segments of the Republican electorate, Schnur said.

“Perry doesn’t duplicate either Romney or Bachmann’s support, he overlaps with them both,” he said. “He’s the most Tea Party candidate the establishment can deal with and the most establishment candidate the Tea Party can handle.”

Schnur said that in order for Perry to maintain his current edge, he will have “to prove himself in debates and fundraising, and the day-to-day challenges” of an election campaign.

Perry has sparked controversy on the campaign trail, notably warning the Federal Reserve’s chairman, Ben Bernanke, not to print more money before the presidential elections because doing so would be “almost treasonous” and treated “pretty ugly down in Texas.”

And David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter and outspoken internal conservative movement critic, has written that Perry’s criticisms of Social Security and Medicare could “reverse this election from a referendum on President Obama’s record to a referendum on Rick Perry’s intentions.”

JTA/Washington Jewish Week

 
 
 
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