Stuart Green of Lafayette Hill, a member of the Republican Jewish Coalition for 20 years, usually has a good sense early on who he's going to back for president. Not this time.
Mitt Romney (left) and Newt Gingrich eached assailed the president's Middle East policies at the Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Candidates Forum.
Photo by Richard Chaitt
Green remains undecided "for the first time in a long time," which is why he headed to Washington, D.C., this week to hear for himself what the top Republican candidates had to say at the Republican Jewish Coalition's Presidential Candidates Forum, a day-long affair held at the Ronald Reagan Building.
Despite the broad choice, he's pretty sure it's going to come down to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
For her part, Caren Sokolow, a recently retired audiologist from Cherry Hill, N.J., is new to Republican politics and had never been to such an event. She was looking to make contacts with like-minded Jews across the country and solidify her choice for president.
"I'm a Newt girl now I think," she said, standing in a long line for a cab to get to the event. "I think he has great ideas, but I have reservations about the personality. I don't know if he's electable."
Green and Sokolow were two of some 50 Jews from the Philadelphia region who traveled to the forum, which took place less than a month before the Iowa caucuses, the first official test for the candidates. Gingrich has surged in the latest polls -- after the implosion of Herman's Cain's candidacy -- and has emerged as the main challenger to Romney, the choice of many establishment Republicans.
Over the course of a day, the candidates spent about 45 minutes each speaking to some 500 activists and taking questions. In addition to Romney and Gingrich, the others invited were former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachman. (Just like four years ago, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul was not invited to the event due to his opposition to aid to Israel.)
As expected, there were plenty of applause lines regarding the Jewish state. There was also no shortage of critiques of President Barack Obama's Middle East policies and promises to change direction.
Romney, for instance, reiterated his pledge to make Israel his first stop abroad, if elected. He also claimed that Obama has pushed Israel to base negotiations on "indefensible borders."
Gingrich said the Obama administration holds an "it's-always-Israel's-fault mentality." His biggest applause came in response to a promise to nominate John Bolton, former ambassador to the United Nations, to the post of secretary of state. Bolton is a darling of conservatives, a fierce critic of the U.N. and staunchly pro-Israel.
Yet, Israel and Iran did not overwhelm the agenda the way it had at the last RJC forum in 2007, and the candidates -- with the possible exception of Bachman and Perry -- spent a considerable amount of time focusing on the economy, laying out their broader vision.
Undecided Republicans like Matt Handell, a Blue Bell attorney, were looking for a deeper sense of the candidates' connections with Israel, but they were also gauging electability and fiscal policy distinctions.
"That's an important takeaway for the RJC," said Handell, who also is involved with the non-partisan Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition. "It's a complete Republican viewpoint. Israel is indeed very important to us, but it's about the entire package of Republican proposals for government."
All in all, the hopefuls painted a dour picture of the economy and the country's health. Making a reference to Ronald Reagan's "city on a hill" speech, Romney said that America is still a beacon, but the light has dimmed. (Reagan was known for communicating optimism.)
Obama, Romney said, "is seeking to replace our merit based society with an entitlement based society."
Gingrich, calling the election the most important since 1860, said there's a need for a "fundamental shift" in American government and exhorted the crowd to help the GOP recapture the Senate so the party can pursue an ambitious agenda.
None of the candidates were asked about their position on foreign aid to Israel. In one of their debates, Perry, Gingrich and Romney all expressed support for the idea of essentially starting the foreign aid funding process from scratch and deciding what might be a good use of American dollars.
The Democrats immediately attacked the idea, suggesting that the U.S. multi-billion-dollar aid package to Israel would be jeopardized.
But Perry, who first proposed the notion, raised the issue on his own. He said that much of what America allocates in foreign aid doesn't make sense, but under a Perry administration, the United States would increase military assistance to Israel.
The desire to trim government was also a major theme of the day, with Perry calling for a part-time Congress and Bachman reiterating her proposal to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education.
Some of the foreign policy divisions within the party were also on display, with Santorum calling for a more robust U.S. role around the world and Huntsman advocating a scaled back approach, arguing that America can't engage in nation building until this nation is rebuilt.
When it came to Romney and Gingrich, the differences appeared more about style than substance.
According to Handell, "The question is, what type of nominee are we looking for?"; and he added that he thought the desire for "outsider" candidates like Bachman has begun to wane.
"What we are coming down to right now with Romney versus Gingrich are two very experienced men with two very different viewpoints," he said. "What attracts me to Romney is real private-sector experience. Newt is a very experienced, intellectual legislator who also knows how to play extreme political hardball.
"I think they are offering two different visions of what's the best way to win the presidency."