Talk of foreign policy and America's struggle against radical Islam dominated the Republican Jewish Coalition's Oct. 16 presidential candidates' forum, with the five participants each pledging to do all in their power to thwart Iranian nuclear ambitions, while at the same time infusing their pitches with varying doses of pro-Israel rhetoric.
Nearly 600 GOP activists and donors from around the country turned out to hear directly from Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who bowed out of the race on Oct. 19; former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani; Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.); former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; and former Tennessee Sen. and well-known actor Fred Thompson.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee could not attend, and U.S. Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) and Ron Paul (R-Texas) were not invited — the first two because of their long-shot status and the latter for his record of opposing aid to Israel.
In a setting where each contender had roughly 45 minutes to address the crowd and field questions, the manner in which each approached the Iranian issue became largely one of style. Each speaker attempted to one-up the others in trying to sound the most eloquent or most hawkish on the need to stop Iran.
Yet the program, held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, D.C., highlighted some potential differences among the candidates' overall approach to the Mideast and the Jewish state.
One such distinction emerged between Giuliani — the front-runner, who enjoys the widest support among Jewish Republicans — and Romney, who, taking into account the less-than-enthusiastic reviews Thompson has received on the stump, has arguably emerged as the New Yorker's chief rival for the nomination.
"We would like to negotiate, we would like to have peace, but we don't want to have a peace where we are taken advantage of," said Giuliani, explaining why he would not push for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians along the lines of former President Bill Clinton or current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "They have to be willing to say that 'we forsake terrorism, and we are willing to reduce and eliminate terrorism.' "
Giuliani said that, if elected, he would step back from President George W. Bush's road map for peace, which, since 2002, has driven American policy vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He added that he also would not push for statehood until the Palestinians had proven they'd renounced terror and had taken concrete steps toward creating a stable society.
Romney also voiced skepticism about the planned Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic summit set for Annapolis, Md., though he stressed that he was not ready to completely abandon Bush's road-map policy.
"The road map is the pathway that has the most promise," he said. "I'm one of these guys who is always willing to talk, but am cautious in my hope."
In his 30-minute-or-so speech, Giuliani barely mentioned Iraq. Thompson and Romney spoke of the need to win in Iraq, but they both spent far more time on Iran.
McCain, by contrast, spent the bulk of his stump speech bolstering his credentials on Iraq, defending Gen. David Petraeus and the "surge" policy, while blasting former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's — and, by extension, Bush's — handling of the war. Brownback reiterated his call for the partitioning of Iraq into Kurdish, Shi'ite and Sunni entities.
The Jewish Vote
If holding on to the White House requires an uphill climb for the Republican Party, capturing a majority of the Jewish vote might be likened to scaling Mount Everest. According to the 2006 National Exit Election Poll, 87 percent of Jews backed Democratic candidates.
The RJC has disputed that figure; their poll placed Jewish support at 26 percent.
On the very same day of the debate, the National Jewish Democratic Council and U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) called on GOP participants to condemn conservative author Ann Coulter's comments that Jews need to be "perfected" by becoming Christian. None did.
Nor did McCain catch any audible flack from the crowd for recent comments to www.belief net.com that the U.S. Constitution created a Christian nation.
Well before the debate, the RJC released a statement that said, " … a full reading of the entire interview shows Sen. McCain unequivocally reaffirming the separation of church and state and recognizing the Judeo-Christian values upon which this country was founded."
While Guiliani's front-runner status does not seem as clear as Sen. Hillary Clinton's (D-N.Y.), the former New York mayor assumed a "general-election mode," and directed most of his criticism at Clinton and her closest rival, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.)
"There is the great fallacy in this now very strong Democratic desire to negotiate, negotiate, negotiate — and negotiate. You've got to know with whom to negotiate and with whom you should not negotiate," he said, citing his famous 1995 ejection of PLO head Yasser Arafat from a U.N. function in New York as indicative of his leadership style.
"I didn't hesitate, like Hillary Clinton hesitates, to answer questions on what she's going to do about Iran," proclaimed Giuliani.
Romney, who cited his own 2001 refusal to grant a Massachusetts state-police escort for former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, said that "in the case of this most serious existential threat, many in the Democratic field are in the most serious political denial since Neville Chamberlain."
When asked by an audience member how to defeat a Democratic candidate, Thompson replied that the answer wasn't to move to the political center, but to run a campaign based on conservative values.
"I don't think we need to worry about Hillary as much as we need to worry about ourselves," said the one-time "Law & Order" star. At one point, Thompson also claimed that "laws come from God, not from government."
In contrast to a similar forum held by the NJDC back in April, participants here seemed far less concerned with domestic issues than with foreign policy.
"I'm looking for the candidate that really has moral clarity in the struggle against Islam," said William Wanger, 56, who lives in Gwynedd and belongs to Congregation Beth Or. Wanger, who traveled to the nation's capital with his wife, Cindy, noted that he's leaning toward Giuliani.
Ifat Lerner, a 28-year-old Virginia resident, said that she votes on national-security issues. She noted that she backed Al Gore in 2000, but turned to the GOP after the Sept. 11 attacks. As for this race, she's still undecided.
"It's still early, but it feels like it's gone on for years," quipped Lerner.
Harlan D. Hockenberg came all the way from Des Moines, Iowa, to both support the RJC — tickets cost a minimum of $500 — and see the candidates in person.
The senior citizen cautioned that the Republican race is far from decided.
Hockenberg– one of roughly 7,000 Jews in the Hawkeye State — said that "everyone I know in Iowa is either undecided or slightly leaning."