Romney, Gingrich vie for Republican Jewish allegiance at forum

Laura Rozen

Republican Jewish activists are finding that the battle for their own political allegiance largely mirrors the way that the overall presidential race has been trending: a choice between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

Romney received a warm and enthusiastic welcome when he spoke before the Republican Jewish Coalition's candidates forum in Washington Wednesday. Indeed, much of the crowd already seemed lined up behind the former Massachusetts governor, responding favorably to his outline of his foreign-policy worldview and critique of President Obama's leadership on both the foreign policy and domestic fronts.

Obama "has bowed to foreign dictators," Romney said, adding that the president 'has "rushed to apologize for America, but he has hesitated to speak up for democracy and freedom."

While Obama has visisted several Muslim majority nations, and offered to engage with Iran, Romney said, "he has not found it in his interest to visit Israel, our ally, our friend," since entering office three years ago. Instead, Romney said, Obama "has chastised Israel" and "been timid and weak in the face of the existential threat of a nuclear Iran."

Romney said that his first foreign trip as president would  be to Israel, and added that a Romney administration would not pursue any engagement with Iran. Instead, Romney argued that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should be indicted for inciting genocide.

Romney also played up his credentials for getting the American economy back on track. He said that basically all of the Republican presidential candidates to address the forum Thursday would critique Obama's record on Israel, while vowing to be tough on Iran; what makes him a more qualified president, Romney said, is his business experience and judgment.

"I spent 25 years in business," Romney said. "I've signed the front and the back of a paycheck.  I've helped businesses, like the Sports Authority and Staples, to grow from start-ups to international enterprises.  I've served as governor of a state and the steward of the Olympics."

"Romney struck the best chord," GOP strategist and RJC board member Ari Fleischer, who is neutral in the race, said in a conversation with journalists after speeches by Romney, former Obama China envoy Jon Huntsman and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Romney's appeal to the RJC "transcends his pro-Israel" positions, Fleischer said.

Yet to be seen is "who emotionally connects better with this crowd—Romney or Gingrich," Fleischer continued.

"Both have a natural constituency" in the RJC ranks, Fleischer noted. "Romney already has a lot of supporters here, because—like the rest of the country--most people previously thought Newt was out."

Dylan Williams, director of government affairs for the left-leaning Israel lobby group J Street, likewise observed that Romney did not dwell  long on Obama's record on Iran or Israel before turning the discussion to domestic policy matters.

"Governor Romney's speech was light on Israel content" Williams said by email. "It was smart of him to start with and spend most of his time on domestic issues, because polling shows that where a candidate stands on the economy, education and health care has much more of an impact on who American Jews vote for than what a candidate says or does regarding Israel."

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