LAS VEGAS — Who will the billionaire owner of the lavish Venetian and Palazzo casinos bet on for president in 2016?
Four potential Republican hopefuls — all governors or former governors — flocked to Sin City this week to lay their cards on hotel mogul Sheldon Adelson's table.
Among them: Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Ohio Gov. John Kaisch and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — fresh from a week of tough questions over an internal report that purportedly cleared him of responsibility in the scandal surrounding lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.
And after a spirited press conference Friday, Christie's Saturday speech at the Republican Jewish Coalition's annual spring meeting seemed another step toward the return of the pugnacious, pre-scandal governor.
"We cannot have a world where our friends are unsure of whether we will be with them and our enemies are unsure of whether we will be against them," Christie told the conservative Jewish donors who had gathered in a ballroom deep in the Las Vegas Sands convention center complex.
"In New Jersey, nobody has to wonder whether I'm for them or against them."
The audience laughed.
Adelson and his wife sank more than $90 million into trying to elect a Republican candidate for president in 2012.
Much of the money went to a super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich — an effort blamed for dragging out the primary process and doing damage eventual nominee Mitt Romney in the process.
After Romney won the nod, Adelson donated millions to the cause; but in some ways the damage was already done.
The casino owner is has not yet picked a horse in the 2016 race but — in a post-Citizens United world that allows super PACs and outside groups to take unlimited donations from individuals, corporations and unions — support is considered extremely valuable.
Saturday's occasion was the spring meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, a group Adelson backs in part to advance Israel's interests. Not on the list of speakers for Saturday: Conservative icon Ted Cruz or libertarian Rand Paul. Paul in particular is viewed with skepticism among pro-Israel Republicans.
At the meeting, Christie seemed to do a better job engaging with the audience than Walker, who spoke first and emphasized his ties to the Jewish community by referencing the Hebrew origin of his son's name (Matthew) and saying he also lights a "Menorah candle" during the Christmas holiday season.
Adelson came into the ballroom for Christie's speech, though he was a bit late. He skipped Walker's altogether. He was seated at Kaisch's table for lunch.
Earlier in the week, Adelson met privately with Bush, who addressed the Coalition's senior members at Adelson's company airport hangar.
Christie's speech on Saturday amounted to an implicit critique of President Barack Obama's approach to foreign policy and national security — the central concerns of those donors in attendance — and an argument for his own personality and style of governing.
"We no longer have a government that people around the world want to emulate," Christie warned. "The dysfunction in Washington, D.C., is no longer being emulated around the world; it is being mocked around the world as a government that will not get out of its own way."
"In the end, we all get known and characterized for how we speak, maybe me more than some others," Christie joked at the beginning of his speech. "If you have a particular style or approach, people get fascinated with that part of your approach. That's fine."
It was also a plea for party unity — a message that Adelson is said to be looking for.
"It's time for us to stop as a party to worry about winning the argument, and focus on winning the election," Christie said. "We have to stop killing each other. I always thought that's what political parties were put together to do."
But the bridge scandal has penetrated enough that Christie was asked about it during a question-and-answer session with the audience — even though the questions were pre-selected by organizers.
"I understand my obligation as a chief executive is to constantly question, and to never to be comfortable," Christie explaining the lessons he has learned from the scandal. "And to the extent that you ever do become comfortable, you put yourself and the trust that people have given to you at risk."
He also took questions about a Muslim man he nominated for a judgeship and at one point, Christie drew whispers from the crowd: He referred to Palestine as the "occupied territories," a politically loaded description that many conservative Jews object to.
The RJC's meetings have historically been closed to the press, but have been opened in recent years as major politicians have addressed it. Mitt Romney addressed the gathering in 2011, before he officially announced his presidential bid.
All the speakers focused on national security and foreign policy, particularly as it relates to Israel; former U.N. ambassador John Bolton opened the gathering and drew perhaps the loudest applause of all.
But it was also clear that the overarching point of the trip to Las Vegas was to make a pitch to an audience of one.
"Hey, Sheldon, thanks for inviting me," Kaisch, the Ohio governor, said as he closed his luncheon remarks, the last of at least a half-dozen times he used addressed the mogul by first name during his speech.
"I don't travel to these things much, but this was one that I thought was really, really important."We're looking for your input for our 2016 elections experience. Participate