WASHINGTON -- With the field in near-universal agreement on the subject of Israel, Republican presidential contenders sought to draw contrasts on tackling terrorism at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s presidential forum here on Thursday.
“We need to come to grips with the idea that we are in the midst of the next World War,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said, calling the shooting in California a clear terrorist attack.
“All of us are deeply concerned that this is yet another manifestation of terrorism, radical Islamic terrorism here at home. Coming on the wake of the terror attack in Paris, this horrific murder underscores that we are at a time of war,” said Sen. Ted Cruz.
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While Sen. Marco Rubio took a more measured approach to the issue, refraining from labeling the shooting outright as an act of terrorism, he said some facts learned about the San Bernardino shootings “are concerning” in the context of the rash of terrorist attacks around the world in recent weeks.
Rubio was a clear favorite of the Republican Jewish crowd, who tend to favor his neo-conservative, hawkish views on foreign policy over the more isolationist strains in the party. Indeed, the GOP presidential field’s most prominent isolationist — Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — ended up skipping the event, after his address was initially postponed due to votes on Capitol Hill.
But there are signs some in the Jewish Republican community could be swayed by Cruz. The most recent signal: One of the party’s most prominent Jewish donors, Sheldon Adelson, reportedly favors Rubio but hasn’t yet endorsed him because his wife is interested in Cruz.
And on Thursday, attendees at the RJC’s meeting hinted at why — Rubio, they said, may be a winner on substance, but he left clear questions on style.
“There were two candidates that were disrespectful — they never bothered to have a speech to give without reading it,” said Marlyn Appelbaum, a psychologist from Texas. Both Rubio and Ben Carson read largely from prepared remarks, though Rubio stayed after to answer questions off-the-cuff, while Carson departed.
Appelbaum attended with her son and daughter-in-law, who all said they were looking forward to Rubio’s remarks but were underwhelmed.
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“I was ready to be impressed — we were all ready,” she added.
Other candidates who were off the table for many attendees to begin with seemed to confirm the crowd’s skepticism with their remarks. Donald Trump said outright that attendees were “not gonna support me because I don’t want your money,” and then expressed a number of positions that neared blasphemy in front of a pro-Israel crowd. At one point, he drew boos for suggesting Israel would have to budge on the issue of Jerusalem being the country’s capitol.
And Ben Carson read entirely from a prepared text, a break from tradition for the candidate and one that seemed to underscore his lack of depth on foreign policy rather than highlight his knowledge.
Sam Miranda, a retiree from Silver Spring, Md. who’s also a member of the RJC’s leadership council, a top-tier donor group, called both Carson and Trump “disappointing."
“I expected more [from Carson]. And Trump didn’t discuss any issues of substance,” he said. “It was like a comedy routine."
That was despite the full-blast pandering from Carson, Trump and others that ranged from tone-deaf to borderline offensive in their pursuit of Jewish support.
Carson suggested U.S. support for Israel could be found in the Star of David on the back of the $1 bill. Trump said to the crowd, “I’m like you — we’re negotiators." Ohio Gov. John Kasich said his mother told him to get a Jewish friend because they’ll “stick by your side," while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina wished the crowd a happy Hanukkah.
For some, that alone was a deal-breaker. Miranda said he was sick of hearing “the obligatory, ‘move the embassy to Israel,’” and emphasized that he’s not just a single-issue voter.
“I’m not particularly interested in being pandered to,” he said. “Israel is important, but I think a lot of other issues are important as well."