Washington — Caren Sokolow, a recently retired audiologist from Cherry Hill, N.J., thinks Newt Gingrich could make a great president. Whether he can win the presidency is another matter.
The recent flap over Gingrich's remark that the Palestinians are an "invented people" underscores the conundrum for Sokolow and other fans of the suddenly surging Republican front-runner.
She appreciates the former House speaker's grasp of history — he does, after all, hold a Ph.D. in the subject — but worries that sometimes he says things that won't play well politically.
"I'm a Newt girl now, I think," said Sokolow, who is new to GOP politics and traveled to Washington, D.C., last week for the Republican Jewish Coalition's presidential candidates' forum. "He has great ideas, but I have reservations about the personality. I don't know if he's electable."
She added: "One of the reasons I'm so fond of Mr. Gingrich as a candidate is that he doesn't necessarily weigh every comment in terms of how politically correct it is."
For the lifelong Democrat who switched allegiances in 2008 over concerns about Barack Obama's sincerity on Israel, it's all about preventing a second term for the president.
"If Gingrich can't do it, I would support any candidate who could," she said.
Sokolow was one of some 50 Jews from the Philadelphia region who traveled to the Dec. 7 RJC forum, which took place less than a month before the Iowa caucuses, the first official test for the candidates.
The RJC forum featured six candidates but the attention was on two of them, Gingrich and former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney.
Gingrich, who likes to flout his knowledge of history, made headlines a few days after the RJC program when, in an interview with The Jewish Channel cable network, he said, "I think we have an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs, and historically part of the Arab community; and they had the chance to go many places."
The question wasn't so much over the truth of the claim but critics suggested that the statement needlessly insulted the Palestinians, and raised questions about whether Gingrich opposed Palestinian statehood. Later, a campaign spokesman clarified that Gingrich does support a two-state solution.
The issue came up at the Dec. 10 Republican debate in Iowa, when Romney asserted he'd be a more sober leader who wouldn't throw "incendiary words into a place which is a boiling pot."
Romney appears to be the choice of many establishment Jewish Republicans, but the Forward recently reported that Gingrich has gained the backing of Sheldon Adelson, a Jewish billionaire who is one of the top political donors in the country.
Gingrich has surged in the latest polls — after the implosion of Herman's Cain's candidacy — and has emerged as the main challenger to Romney.
In addition to Gingrich and Romney, the others appearing at the RJC forum were former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachman. (Just like four years ago, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, who opposes foreign aid to Israel, was not invited.)
As expected, there were plenty of applause lines regarding the Jewish state. There was also no shortage of critiques of President Barack Obama's Middle East policies and promises to change direction.
Responding to the candidate's attacks on Obama, Marcel Groen, chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Party, said that politicizing Israel harms the U.S.-Israel relationship.
"The president, by all accounts, has developed a closer relationship between the American and Israeli military than anyone before," Groen wrote in an email. "He has stepped up when Israel needed help with the evacuation of its embassy in Cairo, and our country's strategy in how to deal with Iran appears to be in sync."
Stuart Green of Lafayette Hill, a member of the Republican Jewish Coalition for 20 years, usually has a good sense early on who he'll be backing for president. Not this time.
Green remains undecided "for the first time in a long time."
Would Gingrich's recent comments help bolster his standing among GOP Jews or give primary voters pause? Neither, he replied.
"I'm not sure the comment was relevant to the discussion. We are where we are, and the leaders of all groups involved need to work hard toward a peaceful settlement," he said, adding that " his competitors will try to make politics out of it, but it will fade from public memory soon."
Sokolow, meanwhile, said she came away with a much better impression of Romney.
"He seemed more passionate about getting to the Oval Office," said Sokolow, who noted that she still prefers Gingrich but remains unsure who would stand the best chance of unseating the president.
For undecided Republican Matt Handel, "The question is, what type of nominee are we looking for?" He added that he thought the desire for "outsider" candidates like Bachman has begun to wane.
"What we are coming down to right now with Romney versus Gingrich are two very experienced men with two very different viewpoints," he said. "What attracts me to Romney is real private-sector experience. Newt is a very experienced, intellectual legislator who also knows how to play extreme political hardball.
"I think they are offering two different visions of what's the best way to win the presidency."