The Republicans, Vying to Be the Chosen People's Choice

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Politicians tend to tailor their words to their audiences, so it came as no surprise yesterday when five presidential aspirants addressing a forum of Republican Jews all touted their Jewish credentials.

Hey, some of their best friends . . .

Mitt Romney spoke of his "old friend" Binyamin Netanyahu. Former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson used the words "Israel," "Israeli" or "Israelis" 13 times in about 45 minutes. Sen. Sam Brownback told a story involving how hard it is to find a "nice, young Jewish man" in his home state of Kansas. And Rudy Giuliani recalled the moment in 1980 or so when he just knew the Gipper was going to become the next president.

"I was at a bar mitzvah reception in Manhattan," the former New York City mayor said. "One after one, everybody's talking about voting for Ronald Reagan."

Arizona Sen. John McCain took the stage of the Grand Hyatt Washington ballroom with an old line that held a certain creaky, Borscht Belt appeal.

"After following Sam Brownback and Rudy Giuliani and other speakers that you've had, I feel a bit like Zsa Zsa Gabor's fifth husband, who on her wedding night said, 'I know what I'm supposed to do, I just don't know how to make it interesting.' "

One of the rituals of the presidential race is for candidates to make the rounds, telling interest groups why they have been for decades -- indeed, since childhood! -- the strongest voice for thus-and-such cause.

Yesterday's organization happened to be the Republican Jewish Coalition, whose board boasts a who's who of political and business luminaries, including former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, former Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman, former ambassador Mel Sembler and billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. All of the above were in attendance. Tickets cost $500, though those among the several hundred attendees wishing to give more were offered the option of paying as much as $50,000 for 20 seats.

The candidates' speeches were heavy on foreign policy and followed a general theme: Iran, Iraq, Israel. Rinse, repeat. Jimmy Carter was booed and Hillary Clinton derided. The audience offered all the aspirants standing ovations, and laughed obligingly at nearly all the jokes -- as when former Massachusetts governor Romney spoke of a Jewish friend who went to services in Alaska at "the synagogue of the frozen chosen."

There was talk of what a "powerhouse" the Republican Jewish Council is (Romney), and how it "stands for the spirit that our party needs" (Giuliani). There was talk of the need for converting more Jews to the Grand Old Party.

"A lot of you are the first Republicans in your families, right? Am I right?" Giuliani asked, as the audience applauded.

The candidates competed for who could claim to be the best friend of Israel. They spoke of the alignment between U.S. and Israeli interests and pledged to continue to help protect Israel in the face of threats. Romney told of meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres in Boston, and of the wisdom Peres offered on the topic of America's greatness. McCain casually mentioned that he'd be meeting with former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak later in the day.

Brownback spoke of visiting Jerusalem -- "an amazing, amazing place" and going to "the area where they found the gate that goes into the inner temple area that they uncovered. And it's just an incredible thing to see for me. I imagine for you even more so."

Giuliani boasted of the time in 1995 when he had Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat removed from a city-sponsored concert marking the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. The memory gave him the opportunity to make fun of the Democratic front-runner.

"I didn't hesitate, like Hillary Clinton hesitates to answer questions on what she's going to do about Iran," Giuliani said.

Romney was asked by an audience member why his Mormon faith "scares" people, prompting another audience member to tell the candidate that "everybody here would decry any use of your religion to keep you from office."

Brownback, who has lagged behind the front-runners in both money and poll numbers, told the audience that he would accept "all major currencies and major credit cards and first-born children."

And at another point, noting his state's tiny Jewish population, he told the group: "If any of you would like to move to my state, please come. We'd love to have you."

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