GOP Presidential Hopefuls Make Bid For Jewish Vote

The Republican candidates spoke to the national Republican Jewish Coalition Wednesday in Washington, D.C. They all showed support for Israel while slamming President Obama's Mideast policy.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

When we look at the presidential race, we often glance at polls like those showing Newt Gingrich as the front-runner for the Republican nomination. Campaign strategists do that too, but they also take a far more nuanced look.

INSKEEP: They target specific kinds of voters. In a moment, we'll hear about the Republican dilemma when it comes to the Latino vote.

WERTHEIMER: We start with the Jewish vote, which candidates courted yesterday at a forum sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition.

NPR's Ari Shapiro was there.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The unanimous message from all of the candidates was: Israel, we love you more than President Obama does.

MITT ROMNEY: In three years in office, he hasn't found the time or interest to visit Israel - our ally, our friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOS)

SHAPIRO: That was former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had one of the day's biggest applause lines with this promise.

NEWT GINGRICH: In a Gingrich administration, the opening day, there will be an executive order about two hours after the inaugural address. We will send the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as of that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: Michele Bachmann said she would do the same, and she already has a donor lined up to pay for it.

REPRESENTATIVE MICHELE BACHMANN: Like you, my commitment is unequivocal and unchanging. We stand with Israel.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: The six candidates each spent a lot of time speaking with these Jewish Republicans. It's striking, given that Jews make up about 2 percent of the U.S. population, and overwhelmingly vote Democratic. Yet support for Israel is also a strong litmus test for evangelical voters. Evangelicals could be hugely influential in early Republican primary states.

So, Texas Governor Rick Perry tried to clarify a statement he'd made at an earlier debate that he would zero out all foreign aid, including to Israel. At yesterday's forum, Perry said: Money for Israel isn't foreign aid, its strategic defensive aid.

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: And I will assure you one thing. Strategic defensive aid, strategic aid in all forms under a Perry administration will increase to Israel.

SHAPIRO: It's an article of faith in this crowd that President Obama has mistreated Israel. The White House has been pushing back on the claims. At a fundraiser in New York last week, President Obama told Jewish donors that he has done more for Israel than any previous administration, from military cooperation to foreign aid.

Jeremy Ben-Ami is with the progressive Jewish group J-Street. He argues that President Obama is sometimes Israel's best friend, by saying difficult things Israel would rather not hear.

JEREMY BEN-AMI: I think the Republican candidates are misunderstanding what's in America's interest and misunderstanding what's in Israel's interest, in the pandering that they're doing to try to get Jewish political support.

SHAPIRO: President Obama actually polls very well on foreign affairs, far better than domestic affairs. But most people in yesterday's hawkish, conservative crowd responded enthusiastically, when candidates said President Obama has been too dismissive of Israel, and too friendly with Iran.

GINGRICH: So, I believe on Iran the only rational long-term policy is regime replacement.

SHAPIRO: Gingrich was one of several candidates to support military action against Iran. So did former Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman.

JON HUNTSMAN: If you can't live with a nuclear Iran and I can't, then you have to say that all options are on the table. And for me, all options are on the table.

SHAPIRO: That's actually the same position as President Obama.

After the last speaker left the stage, Susan Sager of Austin, Texas, said she was impressed.

SUSAN SAGER: It was unbelievable.

SHAPIRO: Being a Texan, she has a natural affinity for Rick Perry.

SAGER: But I have to tell you, I thought newt Gingrich just hit it out of the ballpark.

SHAPIRO: Gingrich persuaded several people who expressed their views after the forum. Robert Schnipper is an ophthalmologist in Jacksonville, Florida.

DR. ROBERT SCHNIPPER: I thought Newt Gingrich was phenomenal. He had comprehensive, unique ideas that made sense. Romney was fabulous, Michele Bachmann was great. They were all fabulous.

SHAPIRO: The only Republican presidential candidate who does not share the rest of the panel's views on Israel is Texas Congressman Ron Paul. He believes in a small military footprint and he has criticized US aid to Israel. He was not invited to speak at this forum.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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