The Candidates at the Republican Jewish Coalition

Five of the Republican presidential contenders made appearances yesterday at the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC). Republicans hoping to win in 2008 would certainly like to improve their support among Jewish voters who traditionally have favored Democrats by large margins. Matthew Brooks, Executive Director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, told me he thinks Republicans have an opportunity in 2008 to increase their support among Jewish voters. Although Democratic Presidential candidates have won the large majority of Jewish voters, Brooks sees a pattern of improvement over the last four elections from George HW Bush’s 11% share of the Jewish vote to the last election in which George Bush by some tallies got the support of a quarter of the Jewish voters.

However, yesterday’s event was also a chance for the candidates to talk to a larger audience about foreign policy and bolster their chances in an increasingly contentious race. Brooks notes that Republicans’ strong national security stance, unswerving support for Israel and hard line on Iran (which has hosted a Holocaust Denial conference and vows to eliminate Israel) plays well with Republicans in general but also has changed the minds of some Jewish voters who would not have considered voting for a Republican in the past. He points to long time Democrat Ed Koch who voted for George Bush and has praised Bush’s support of Israel.

Greeted with warm if not overwhelming applause, Sam Brownback gave a far-ranging talk touching on his support for Israel and his belief that we “have to win in Iraq.” Brownback spent much of his time talking about his favored themes: rebuilding the family, renewing the culture and reviving the economy. His comments in favor of reducing out of wedlock births and against driving “faith from the public square” were well received. A savvy audience member who questioned how Brownback could emerge from the second tier got an honest and informative answer: he must finish in the top four in Iowa or his race is over.

Next up was Rudy Giuliani (who likely had more Jewish constituents while mayor than any world politician other than the Israeli Prime Minister). Greeted with multiple standing ovations, the former mayor concentrated on his pitch of resoluteness- indeed defiance – in the face of those “who want to destroy you and your family.” First, perhaps in response to recent jibes by Fred Thompson, Giuliani reminded the crowd he was the first Republican New York mayor in 25 years and the first one to remain a Republican in 50 (“I gave my blood to the Republican Party in New York”). He commiserated with the audience, acknowledging that many of them were likely the first in their family to vote Republican.

Next came the electability argument — promising to be a “coast to coast candidate” — and noting that Republicans “ask Florida to do a lot” but need other states like Michigan and New Jersey to come into the Red column. The heart of his speech focused on Iran. With feisty determination he announced: “I guarantee we will never find out what they will do if they get nuclear weapons,” which drew a standing ovation. He continued with the explanation that he would significantly increase sanctions, urge pension plans to divest in Iran and make clear that the “military option is not off the table.”

Giuliani declared that “peace has to be based on realism and not romance” and chided both Hillary Clinton for refusing to answer whether she would agree with Giuliani’s position on Iran and Barak Obama who questioned why we couldn’t negotiate with Iran like Ronald Reagan did with the Soviets. (“I say respectfully, ‘You’re no Ronald Reagan.’” He then explained that negotiations only followed a massive increase in defense spending and placement in Europe of missiles aimed at Soviet cities.)

But the highlight of his speech was his recounting of his eviction of Yasser Arafat from Lincoln Center. With a jab at Mitt Romney, he remarked that he did not have time to “call the lawyers” and see if on one hand he could stay, on the other he couldn’t or perhaps he could be moved to higher seating. Giuliani said bluntly: “I just made a decision. I am a leader.” His retelling of his decision to return the $10M check from the Saudi Prince who blamed U.S. support for Israel as the cause of the 9-11 attack was likewise warmly received. Finally, in vintage style he told the crowd that although the Democrats avoided reference to “Islamic fundamentalism” or “Islamic terrorism” for fear of being politically incorrect but “I’m offending exactly who I want to offend.” This was the “A” game from Giuliani — funny, pugnacious and crystal clear about who the good and bad guys in the world are.

Next up was John McCain who bestrode the stage with a hand microphone spitting facts and figures, using only 15 minutes of his time for prepared remarks and taking every opportunity to remind the crowd he was the only candidate with military experience and only he among the contenders had “railed against this policy” in Iraq and helped persuade the Bush administration to change course. McCain, unlike the conversational Giuliani, made little effort to bond with the audience or amuse them and repeatedly sounded the warning that the Iraq war is not won and that chaos will follow a precipitous withdrawal.

McCain’s vow never to allow torture was met by only light applause from the very tough crowd who seemed immune to his suggestion that our enemies would refrain from torture if we did. The question and answer session brought candid answers: military experience is not a criterion for being President but “helps”, the U.S. should not pull out of the U.N. because “it is the only game in town” and partition of Iraq is a nonstarter that would take 500,000 troops to enforce.

Next up was Mitt Romney who has had a tough couple of weeks battling the “ask the lawyers” comment and likely happy to find a forum to explain his views. Scattered applause greeted his reiteration that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute was not simply about borders but about a global war by jihadists.

In prepared remarks, Romney chastised the Democrats who “do not understand” and “do not believe” the worldwide threat to our interests. He did get a rise out of the crowd by joking that like Henny Youngman (whom he initially confused with Rodney Dangerfield) “take Jimmy Carter, please take Jimmy Carter.” Although the former Massachusetts governor conceded we must remain in the UN he advocated withdrawing from the UN Human Rights Council. He reminded the crowd that he had denied President Khatami a police escort at Harvard. He also reiterated his belief that Iran should not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons and that we must convince the Iranians that we are “poised to act” if needed to deny them nuclear weapons.

During the question and answer period Romney seemed most passionate when a questioner asked about energy independence. He got a more enthusiastic round of applause by reminding the crowd that President Bush had kept us safe from attack. Asked about health care he said he found a way to get healthcare “for everyone in a Republican way.” Again, he seemed quite energized talking about making health care more “like a market and less like a regulated utility.”

What about his LDS faith “scares” people, Romney was asked. He touted his conversations with Evangelical Christians, saying they were very much open to his candidacy based on shared values, and noted that James Dobson had ruled out three of his opponents. (He focused solely on Evangelicals and did not tip his hat or acknowledge the non-Christians in the audience — or Republican Catholics — whose support he also is seeking.) He ended with a plea for “change” in Washington.

Rounding out the day was Fred Thompson. His comments began with a generic statement praising constitutional freedoms, the rule of law, and market economics. He also acknowledged “real challenges” and pointed to the Democratic Party’s “siren song” of “millions of dollars falling into their laps” from the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the AMT. Speaking largely in broad and general strokes, he cautioned against bringing the troops home as Democrats advocate and remarked that Iraq is a “front in that war [on terror] but not the totality of that war.”

Thompson sounded familiar and shopworn themes: cautions that our friends and enemies are watching to see our resolve and we have a “common front” with Israel. Like those who preceded him he turned to Iran, noting their record of supporting terrorism and nuclear acquisition, and pointed to examples of Islamic fundamentalist states and territories such as Iran and the Gaza. Also like the others, he reiterated his determination that Iran not become a nuclear power and the military option be on the table as well as Israel’s right to defend itself. The crowd was largely quiet during his speech.

So what is to be learned? Those looking for a defiant spokesman for American interests and clear headed realism about our foes would be pleased by Giuliani’s performance. And looking at the race as a whole, the candidates who seek to challenge Giuliani need to match him step for step in energy, humor and gritty determination.