LAS VEGAS — At the Republican Jewish Coalition’s winter leadership retreat here, it was the absence of certain likely candidates for president that had the crowd most excited.
While names like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann generate enthusiasm at some other conservative gatherings, their absence over the weekend here had the Jewish crowd giddy that ahead of the 2012 race, the Republican Party may be retreating from the divisive hyper-conservatives that have frustrated Jewish attraction to the party in recent years.
At this GOP gathering the heroes were probable presidential hopefuls who are likelier to sway Jews from their traditional Democratic home and toward Republican candidates with positions on issues like the economy and foreign policy.
Matt Brooks, RJC’s executive director, told a questioner that the social issues that have driven Jews away from the Republican Party in the past — abortion, gay rights, church-state separation — were hardly registering now.
“Social issues get a large role in campaigns when there’s not a lot of other issues at the forefront,” he said. Instead, the issues now are America’s economic health and job loss, Brooks said. “That’s what will drive the narrative,” he said.
The economy — and foreign policy, particularly Israel — certainly were the issues driving the narrative at the RJC event.
The two likely candidates to address the audience in the open forum, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, wove both the economy and foreign policy into their challenges to President Obama, whom they and just about everyone else pledged to make a one-term president. Notably, neither man mentioned social issues.
Both lambasted Obama for what they said was the distance he had established between the United States and Israel, breaking with a tradition of decades of closeness.
Romney said Obama’s attempt to appear evenhanded in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations led him to “castigate Israel while having nothing to say about thousands of rockets being launched into Israel.”
The Obama administration has condemned Hamas rocket attacks on Israel, although its tense exchanges with Netanyahu’s government over settlement building have received much greater attention in the Jewish community.
Thune said the Obama administration’s emphasis on settlements made it appear that they were the reason peace talks were not advancing while ignoring Arab recalcitrance and the Iranian nuclear threat.
“America’s ally is now and always will be the State of Israel,” he said. “I think the Obama administration sometimes forgets that fundamental fact.”
Thune has said he is not running, but his supporters will not count him out and his appearance at this event and others like it fuels speculation that he may return to the race. Dan Lederman, a Jewish state senator from South Dakota, joked that he had already reserved the VP spot on the Thune ticket.
Romney seemed transformed from his failed 2008 bid for the GOP nomination, when he was faulted for appearing scripted and uncertain in his opinions. He barely consulted a single sheet of notes, and spoke in detail not only on his strengths — health care and budget management — but about the threats facing Israel from Iran and about the peace process.
He subtly cast what he undoubtedly will play as his strength — business and executive experience — into every topic. Obama, he said, does not understand negotiations, a lacking that led him to concede too much at the outset to the Russians in negotiating a missile drawdown in Europe.
“He could have gotten a commitment on their part, ‘We will not veto crippling sanctions on Iran,’ ” a reference to the Republican critique that U.N. sanctions approved last year on Iran were not sufficiently far-reaching. Instead, Romney said, Obama made it clear from the outset that he was willing to end missile defense programs in Poland and the Czech Republic, a key Russian demand.
“The consequence of not understanding negotiations has been extraordinarily difficult,” Romney said.
Romney was relaxed and jokey. Insisting that the tax cuts he would advocate targeted the middle class, he said, “I’m not looking for ways to make rich people richer” — and then added, glancing over at Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate and RJC mainstay sitting in the front row, “Sorry Sheldon.”
He also had a practiced answer on health care, facing a vulnerability that has dogged him until now: The plan he championed in Massachusetts, which reduced emergency room-generated costs by mandating health care, was a model for the plan passed last year by Obama and which Republicans want to repeal.
“Romneycare” was good for Massachusetts, he said, but as president he would not impose it on all 50 states. Later he added, to laughter, addressing Obama: If the president truly modeled his plan on Romney’s, “Why didn’t you call me?”
One questioner asked Romney if, like Donald Trump — another putative GOP candidate — he would fight “scrappy” and not behave as a “gentleman” as he had done in previous campaigns. The reference appeared to be to Trump’s adoption of arguments questioning Obama’s citizenship credentials. Romney was adamant he would not stoop to “innuendo” in a campaign.
The most telling moment in Romney’s appearance was when he called his wife, Ann, to the stage.
“Mitt and I can appreciate coming from another heritage,” she said, referring to their Mormon background. That “another” was a sign of the difficulties that minorities have in assimilating into a party that is still perceived as predominantly white and Christian.
The perception that “Republican and Jewish” is an anomaly continues to dog the RJC, despite its successes, including upping the Jewish Republican vote from barely 20 percent in 2008 to more than 30 percent in November’s midterms. Much was made of a show of hands of first-timers at the confab — about a third of the room — and speaker after speaker urged them to bring in more friends and family.
The event was held at Adelson’s palatial Venetian casino hotel, much of it taking place on Shabbat. Observant Jews who attended rushed from services, prayer shawls over their shoulders to events during the day Saturday, dodging oblivious, skimpily dressed cocktail waitresses attending to the crowds. The catering was not kosher, although kosher food was available.
A few Orthodox Jews murmured dissatisfaction with the inconveniences, noting that they are the most Republican of the Jewish religious groups.
Overall, however, the mood was jubilant, with spirited defenses of Republican policies in hallway discussions greeted with effusive nodding, and with attendees relishing the chance to meet with party stars like Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the U.S. House of Representatives majority leader, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and with Danny Ayalon, the Israeli deputy foreign minister.
Muriel Weber, a delegate from Shaker Heights, Ohio, said a Republican candidate would be an easier sell among Jews in 2012 than in 2008.
“The country’s moved on,” she said. “The economy, our relationship with Israel — the world has become more difficult, scarier.”