Tom Smith, the Republican hoping to unseat U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), may not be familiar with the Yiddish term mensch — at least not until this week — nor has he yet visited the Jewish state, though he hopes to one day.
But the one-time coal miner-turned-coal executive from western Pennsylvania's Armstrong County says he is confident that his folksy charm, conservative fiscal positions and his criticism of President Barack Obama's handling of the U.S.-Israel relationship, will resonate with Jewish voters eager for a change in leadership.
In a June 25 speech in Philadelphia to the Republican Jewish Coalition, his first to the group, Smith said: "President Obama and his administration has put tremendous pressure on the state of Israel."
During his talk at the Crowne Plaza on City Avenue, Smith assailed Obama's 2011 call to base Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the pre-1967 borders with mutually agreed upon land swaps, a move that also miffed many pro-Israel Democrats.
"Sen. Casey may have disagreed with those misguided remarks, but Sen. Casey has not done enough to challenge President Obama on Israeli issues," Smith told the assembled crowd of approximately 60 people, most of whom were familiar faces at RJC events.
Larry Smar, Casey's campaign spokesman, took issue with that characterization. He pointed to the senator's 2011 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, given a week after Obama's remarks, in which he stated that "Israel's borders must be defensible and must be determined by parties on the ground."
For most in the audience at the RJC event, it was their first chance to hear Smith, a Lutheran who called himself a "God-fearing man."
The novice candidate summarized his life story of growing up on a family farm, giving up school to run the farm when his father became ill, marrying and starting a family early — he has seven children and eight grandchildren — and going from being a machine operator to the proprietor of a lucrative coal business.
"The farm I was raised on and that I live on today offered me many freedoms," he told the crowd. "Unfortunately, big government is threatening them with the insatiable appetite for higher spending, higher taxes and job-killing regulations. For the last two and a half years, our country has fallen victim to president Obama's failed policies."
Toward the end of the program, one man in the audience told Smith that he was a mensch, a Yiddish term for a good, giving person. The candidate wondered aloud if the man had just called him a "mess."
By all accounts, he's got his work cut out for him: Casey, the son of a popular former governor who endorsed Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary, is favored to win re-election.
Smith has never held elected office and was little known in statewide politics before throwing his hat in the ring. According to reports, Smith spent over $5 million of his own money to win a five-way primary. The state's GOP establishment had backed his opponent, Chester County businessman Steve Welch.
Casey and his Democratic supporters clearly haven't missed the fact that Smith has deep pockets, and that two years ago, Pennsylvanians elected Republicans Pat Toomey to the Senate and Tom Corbett as governor.
Recent polls have Casey leading by as much as 20 percentage points and as little as seven percentage points. (The Real Clear Average, which takes into account several leading polls, has Casey up by 15 points.)
But in a fundraising letter obtained by Politico, the Casey camp acknowledged "the not so good news is that all those polls have me at less than 50 percent — a real warning signal for incumbent candidates."
Several RJC members acknowledged an uphill fight but said that Smith's chances would be greatly enhanced if former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney were able to carry the state at the top of the ticket in November.
Casey was considered a foreign policy neophyte when he first announced his intention to run in 2005, but he's made numerous trips to the Middle East and in 2009, he was appointed chair of the subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian affairs. Since then, Casey has consistently spoken out about the Iranian threat on the Senate floor and has strongly urged passage of legislation that would increase sanctions on Iran.
In an interview after the program, Smith insisted that Casey has not pushed hard enough for steeper sanctions against Iran. "Have you heard anything where he says we should come out for any stronger sanctions?"
Smar, Casey's campaign spokesman, countered that the " attack from Smith is absurd. Sen. Casey has been a leader in the Senate to impose and tighten sanctions on the Iranian regime."
Smar pointed to a list of legislation and resolutions championed by the Democrat, including a February 2012 resolution he co-introduced that deemed it a vital national interest of the United States to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability.
Megan Piowar, Smith's spokeswoman, responded: "Simply put, signing onto letters of support isn't enough. Tom Smith would publicly and consistently call on the Obama administration to show leadership to deter Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons."
Mark Aronchick, an influential Democratic fundraiser, called Casey "the model senator; from the point of view of the Jewish community. He's an absolute champion of Israel."
Aronchick added that with anti-incumbent sentiment running so high, Casey's supporters aren't taking anything for granted and are preparing for a real fight.
For the most part, even those who criticize Obama for his policies on Israel and Iran say they generally admire Casey's leadership on the issue.
At least one pro-Israel activist, Marc Felgoise, who once supported U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and is an RJC member, is sticking with the incumbent.
"In a very short time in the U.S. Senate, Casey has definitely become a leader on an issue that a lot of us care about," he said.
But Lynne Lechter, an RJC leader at the local and national level who was at the event, said that regardless of Casey's pro-Israel record, Republicans need to take back the White House and the Senate in order to change the nation's foreign and domestic policy courses.
Lechter, who ran for the state House in 2008, said she's impressed by Smith and thinks he has a good chance, regardless of what happens in the presidential race.
"I am always very impressed with self-made people," said the attorney. "I like his philosophy. I like the fact that he is inside and out knowledgeable about private business."
William Wanger, president of RJC local chapter, said, "The race against Casey pales in comparison to getting Obama out of office." Still, he said, the Senate is a key prize. "It's a quiet election right now," he said of the Smith-Casey race. "But as the days and the months go on, it's going to be boiling hot."