The GOP’s Israel forum: Winners and losers

The Week
December 8, 2011

One by one, the presidential hopefuls declare their love for Israel to a crowd of Jewish Republicans. Who came out looking best?

The Republican presidential candidates took turns slamming President Obama’s policies on Israel and Iran on Wednesday, at a forum hosted by the Jewish Republican Coalition. One by one, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and the other GOP candidates (minus isolationist libertarian Ron Paul, who wasn’t invited) promised that they would be a better friend to Israel, and a more forceful foe to its adversaries, than Obama has been. Who came out looking best? Here, a brief rundown:


Newt Gingrich
The surging frontrunner was the real “crowd pleaser,” says Maggie Haberman at Politico. The former House speaker “was bathed in repeat applause and some standing ovations” as he talked tough, vowing to name foreign policy bulldog John Bolton as his Secretary of State. Newt also promised to “move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a huge applause line.” As a bonus, Gingrich got to smack down what he labeled “hysterical” complaints from the Left about his past ethics troubles and recent controversial comments about child labor.

Rick Santorum
The former Pennsylvania senator “was relaxed and showed obvious affection for the crowd of pro-Israel, Jewish Republicans,”says Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post. He focused on “the war against jihadist terrorism,” and “forcefully declared that because our security is at stake, we must be the nation to prevent Iran from going nuclear.” His message was tailored to the Jewish crowd, but “it would have played well as well with Christian conservatives in Iowa,” where he is struggling to gain traction.

Rick Perry
The Texas governor may have “stumbled from frontrunner status to single digits in the polls over the last few months,” says Richard A. Oppel Jr. in The New York Times, but he hit some strong notes on Wednesday. His strong defense of Israel won’t just appeal to Jews — it could also help Perry with evangelical Christians who care a lot about what happens in the holy land, and “make up large portions of the Republican primary voters in South Carolina and the caucus-goers in Iowa.”


Rick Perry
Perry’s timing could have been better, says Beth Reinhard at National Journal. Just before he made his pro-Israel pitch to Republican Jews, his campaign “released a new ad that would make many of them squirm.” In it, Perry said “there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” Note to Perry: When ”courting the most religious, pro-Israel wing of the Jewish community,” don’t broadcast your love of school prayer or your contempt for gays, as Jewish voters “tend to be social liberals when it comes to gay rights.”

Jon Huntsman 
Foreign policy is seen as a potential trump card for the former Obama administration China ambassador. But Huntsman “did himself no good” with his “stiff and pompous” performance on Wednesday, says The Washington Post‘s Rubin. He “droned on” about his domestic record and claimed to be the only candidate “who wouldn’t ‘contort himself into a pretzel’ to get votes.” But his foreign policy statements, bashing “nation building” and offering a “few platitudes” about supporting Israel, were “thin gruel.” And talking up his China experience only reminded everyone that he used to work for Obama.

President Obama 
The president’s rivals clearly think his Middle East record has “given Republicans an edge,” says Devin Dwyer at ABC News. And on Wednesday, they did everything they could to exploit it. Rep. Michele Bachmann accused Defense Secretary Leon Panetta of “showing ‘disdain’ toward Israel when he demanded… that they ‘get to the damn table’ to restart peace talks,” and Mitt Romney accused Obama of “chastising” Israel by insisting on a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders. The president isn’t going to lose the Jewish voting bloc in 2012, but his “standing has slipped” since 2008, and this kind of piling on doesn’t make it any easier for him to regain lost ground.

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