(photo credit: AP)
Republican presidential candidates jumped on their Democratic opponents for allegedly lacking clarity of action on Iran during a Republican Jewish Coalition conference Tuesday.
Speaking to a Jewish audience and focusing overwhelmingly on national security issues, the candidates sought to use Iran - and their willingness to talk and potentially act tough on the issue - to demonstrate why the Republicans would be the best to protect Jewish and Israeli interests.
Front-runner Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, derided the Democrats' support for negotiations with the Islamic Republic.
"You cannot negotiate with someone who is threatening to destroy you and your family," he said to applause.
Giuliani singled out Hillary Clinton for at first taking a tougher line on negotiations with Iran than several of the other Democratic candidates.
"That's the first time I agreed with her since she announced she's a Yankees fan," he said to laughter, before slamming her for seeming to soften her position in recent days.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney took a similar approach when he told the audience they needed to challenge the Democrats by asking,
"Will you act to stop a nuclear Iran?" He then declared to cheering, "Let me assure you of one thing: I will. It's time to take [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad at his genocidal word."
Romney, like Giuliani, stressed the importance of maintaining the possibility of military force.
Democrats and Republicans alike have said it would be unacceptable were Iran to have a nuclear weapon and repeated that all options were on the table. But Republicans have been more explicit about the possibility of using force.
At times, the Republicans who spoke at Tuesday's forum implicitly criticized the Bush administration along with their more overt attacks on Democrats.
Romney questioned the timing of the international meeting for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks the US plans to convene this fall.
"How could you possibly have a peace conference at this stage?" Romney asked, referring to the recent takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas. "Who would you talk to?"
And Arizona Senator John McCain criticized the administration's handling of the Iraq war and even Bush's connection with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who recently met with Admadinejad, and questioned whether Iran was trying to get nuclear weapons. Recalling Bush's famous statement early in his presidency that he had looked Putin in the eyes and seen a good soul, McCain said, "I looked in Putin's eyes and I saw three letters: a K, a G and a B" - a reference to Putin's previous connection to the Russian intelligence service.
McCain also denounced the United Nations, though he wouldn't support a questioner in the audience who suggested that the US kick the UN off American soil.
But he did say that when it came to Iran, "the United Nations Security Council will not be effective."
He was speaking of efforts to sanction the Islamic Republic unless it met international demands to halt the enrichment of uranium. McCain proposed an intensified sanctions regime led by the US and its allies.
The candidates emphasized the interests and values the US and Israel share.
Kansas Senator Sam Brownback called "standing with Israel" a "core principle" of the Republican party. And former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson, the final speaker, said, "The terror masters in Teheran and Damascus make only the most minor distinction between America and Israel. They say that America is the Great Satan, and Israel is the Little Satan, and both must be destroyed." He insisted America must take a strong stance against these forces.
Brownback also said, in response to a question from the audience, that he would not pardon Jonathan Pollard based on the information currently available to him.
Pollard was convicted of passing American secrets to Israel and is currently serving a life sentence.
The question was greeted by enthusiastic clapping, but Thompson also received some applause for his response.
"He was convicted of spying against my country," he said. "He got due process and, as far as I'm concerned, he will serve out his prison term."
The Democrats offered their own criticism of the Republicans on Tuesday, as the Democratic National Committee and National Jewish Democratic Coalition called on Republicans to boycott outspoken conservative figure Ann Coulter after she said Jews should be "perfected" by becoming Christians.