LAS VEGAS — To New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Republicans must “stop killing each other.” Start focusing on winning elections, he thundered, or keep arguing and “form a university.”
To Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the GOP ought to quit being the party that cuts programs and takes goodies away from people. “We can’t be the accountant party,” he said. “We’ve got to be the party of more freedom, more opportunity, more prosperity.”
And to Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Republicans should prove to middle-class voters that they understand their problems by seizing the “moral high ground” and guiding those who are struggling to make ends meet out of the shadows.
Three of the nation’s most prominent governors, all touted as potential Republican presidential candidates in 2016, presented advice here Saturday about how their divided and demoralized party should refocus to reclaim the White House.
Under the watchful eyes of a few hundred powerful Jewish donors — none more heavily courted than billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson — Christie, Walker and Kasich also emphasized their support for Israel and advocated a muscular foreign policy.
“We cannot have a world where our friends are unsure of whether we’ll be with them and our enemies are unsure of whether we’ll be against them,” Christie said. “In New Jersey, no one has to wonder whether I’m for them or against them.”
The three seemed less confident speaking about foreign affairs than they were about domestic policy. Christie drew murmurs when he referred to the “occupied territories,” a phrasing some in the audience said was a gaffe.
Officially, the governors were in Las Vegas to address the spring leadership meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which has long promoted a staunchly pro-Israel and interventionist foreign policy. But their political objective was to build relationships with potential benefactors who could bankroll future campaigns.
The biggest draw was Adelson, who hosted the conference at the Venetian, his sprawling and flashy casino hotel. Adelson and his wife, Miriam, spent more than $93 million in the 2012 elections and have signaled they will spend heavily in the next presidential campaign.
Adelson was not present for Walker’s speech, but he arrived a few minutes into Christie’s remarks and took a seat in the front row. He later ate lunch next to Kasich. Although there were a few hundred people seated in the ballroom, the Ohio governor frequently directed his remarks to “Sheldon” in his speech, as if he were having a one-on-one chat.
Concluding his speech, Kasich said: “In Ohio, we’re no longer fly-over [country], Sheldon. We want you to invest. We want you to get to know us.”
Christie, Walker and Kasich — as well as former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who addressed a smaller dinner of the most active donors Thursday night — each met privately with Adelson in what some political observers have dubbed “the Sheldon Primary.”
Andy Abboud, Adelson’s top political adviser and the senior vice president for governmental relations at Las Vegas Sands Corp., described the meetings as casual. He said Adelson is familiar with the governors’ positions on Israel and online gaming — two issues that motivate his political giving — and that they did not make formal presentations or lay out policy agendas.
“It’s literally Diet Cokes, coffee and water,” Abboud said. “It’s not about your positions and what you’ll do about it, but about everything — your families, your trips. It’s important to Sheldon to know what makes people tick and to establish a comfort level.”
Abboud said Adelson is keeping an open mind about whom to back in 2016, although he favors those seen as most likely to appeal to broad demographics and to prevail in the general election.
“People are waiting for us to have puffs of smoke coming from the Venetian, looking to see who the candidate will be,” Abboud said. “It’s a very open field as to who they’re considering, and it’s way too premature to figure out who the favorite is.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is aggressively preparing for a presidential campaign, did not attend the Republican Jewish Coalition gathering. But he was the subject of implicit criticism by some who were there. Several speakers here decried the GOP’s growing noninterventionist strain in what was interpreted in part as a shot at Paul.
John R. Bolton, a hawkish Republican and a former ambassador to the United Nations, said he fears the “rising tide of neo-isolationism within the Republican Party.”
The potential presidential candidates, none of whom is Jewish, found creative ways to emphasize their strong support for Israel and Jewish traditions.
Walker talked about his father’s first pilgrimage to Israel in the 1980s. The governor said that at home during the holidays, he displays both a Christmas tree and a menorah. And he said that he had named his first son Matthew, which is translated in Hebrew as “gift of God.”
Christie spoke at length about a recent trip he took to Israel with his family. He said he was taken with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “strength and resolve.” When he met Israeli President Shimon Peres, Christie said, “I felt like he had walked out of a history book.”
Christie also quipped that he likes traveling to Israel because, he said, the country is “about the same size as New Jersey.”