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When Rudy Giuliani took the stage at the Republican Jewish Coalition conference held in Washington recently, he started by invoking his special link with the constituency in the room.
"No one is working harder to take our party's message to new communities and new voters and bring new people into the Republican party than the Republican Jewish Coalition. If any group stands for the spirit our party needs this year and next year, it's the RJC," the presidential candidate said, explaining that after all, "A lot of you are the first Republicans in your families."
When the knowing laughter had subsided, he continued. "A lot of you get grief for being Republicans, right? As a three-time candidate and eight-year mayor of New York City," he paused and lowered his voice, "I know what you're talking about."
In case there was someone in the room he still hadn't won over, he then found a way to include Ronald Reagan and bar mitzva in the same sentence. He told the audience of GOP heavyweights and Jewish community leaders that he had known the 1980 Republican party nominee was going to win the race when he went to a bar mitzva reception close to the election. Jews generally vote overwhelmingly Democratic, and yet the guests were all talking about how they were backing Reagan. The event, he stressed, was being held in Manhattan. To more laughter, he remarked, "This is a city Abraham Lincoln didn't carry."
Giuliani has had trouble winning over certain traditional voting groups on the Right in his quest for the presidential nomination, but he's been a hit with much of the Republican-Jewish constituency. After all, he's a non-traditional Republican candidate - some might say a New York Republican - himself.
His relatively liberal views on abortion, gay rights and gun control have put him at odds with many of the so-called "values voters" of the GOP base. But those aren't the issues Jewish Republicans tend to vote on; they are more focused on what Giuliani considers his strengths - his posture on national security and fiscal policy.
To judge by the reaction of the crowd, and the informal kibbitzing of many of those in attendance, Giuliani was the favorite choice of the RJC regulars who showed up at the forum to listen to all of the leading Republican candidates. Though Mitt Romney also elicited praise, and John McCain and Fred Thompson both have their backers, Giuliani seemed to have done the best. (Sam Brownback, the other speaker, has since dropped out of the race, and Mike Huckabee, the only other candidate invited, couldn't attend.) "Rudy's crowd was bigger," assessed one Jewish lobbyist who has ties to the Republican party but is not supporting any candidate. "The response of the crowd [to Giuliani] was more energetic, and I think that's indicative of his being a Republican that Jews think can win, and a Republican that Jews are comfortable with."
The lobbyist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivities of the subject, listed Giuliani's take on Israel, national security and other key issues to explain his popularity, which he estimated as a "plurality" of the few hundred people at the conference. And then he pointed to the New York factor, which makes him "a part of the family."
"New York is the center of the North American Jewish world," he said. "As the [former] mayor of New York, he has a connection to our people and our history that is palpable."
One of the Giuliani supporters at the RJC conference, Joel Hoppenstein of Miami, said that as a Jew he appreciates that Giuliani - with his own immigrant roots and more pragmatic stances - could make the party more open and diverse.
"We need, in a sense, to take a look at the Democrats' playbook. We need to become the big tent party. I want to see a party where Hispanics are comfortable, where Jews are comfortable, where blue collar workers are comfortable, and find common ground."
Hoppenstein said that diversity and moderation make Giuliani a formidable - and electable - candidate. He also praised Giuliani for his views on terrorism and other national security issues.
POLLSTER FRANK Luntz, who has worked with Republican candidates in the past, said many of Hoppenstein's neighbors agree with him. Luntz said he found in a recent poll of Jewish Republicans in Florida that some 42% backed Giuliani.
"I think it's because of his positions on terrorism in general and Israel in particular, and his willingness to make Islamic radicalism a significant campaign issue," Luntz said. He added, "Most Jewish Republicans are still pro-choice, so he's got the right social agenda and the right foreign policy agenda."
Indeed, Hoppenstein said, he prefers Giuliani's stance on social issues to that of many of his competitors.
Luntz said Giuliani was particularly strong on Israel: "Nobody's really made Israel an issue in the past, but Rudy Giuliani - he threw out Yasser Arafat from Lincoln center."
Giuliani retold the story - albeit with fuzzy details - of how, when he was mayor, he had Arafat removed from a UN concert. Indeed, his speech featured many more anecdotes connecting him with the audience than those of his opponents.
Luntz said that, in the Florida survey, the other candidates failed to resonate with those surveyed, with no one other than Giuliani breaking the low teens.
But at the RJC event, there was a good deal of praise for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who gave a well-received speech criticizing Iran, terrorist organizations that threaten Israel and other such foreign policy issues. He has frequently discussed those issues at other venues, and recently released a campaign ad on "jihad" and the need to stand against it.
"I heard people say that he was presidential - that they thought he was Reaganesque. He performed well," the Jewish lobbyist said. He added that Romney had assembled a "a very impressive group of Jewish Republican leaders who are supporting him."
Mel Sembler, a former ambassador to Italy, Australia and Nauru, who's now on Romeny's finance team, said Romney impressed the crowd by being "calm, cool and collected under fire," and that "the two outstanding speeches that day were from Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney.
Sembler, who took Romney on a four-day RJC trip to Israel earlier this year, described Romney's "strong position" in support of the Jewish state that he articulated during the visit, including his backing of the security barrier being built.
He also pointed out that, despite Giuliani's strong national polling, Romney's ahead in many of the key early primary states which could prove decisive.
RJC executive director Matthew Brooks said that there was a range of support for the different candidates among the audience at the RJC forum. "All of the candidates have a strong base of support. You saw that with the standing ovations that each of them got" as they addressed the RJC.
Arizona Senator John McCain and former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, however, seemed to move the audience less than Romney and Giuliani. The Jewish lobbyist described McCain as focusing too much on postures that didn't move the audience, such as attacking Bush, and Thompson as delivering a more lackluster address that didn't win him new supporters.
All of this puts Giuliani in the position of front-runner.
"As in the non-Jewish community, in the Jewish community, it's Rudy Giuliani's [race] to lose," he said. At bottom, he concluded, "The feeling is that he's the only Republican that can beat Hillary Clinton."