Man on a mission

Smooth-talking presidential candidate Mitt Romney hits a lot of the right notes when he speaks to Republican Jews, but sometimes his appeal still falls flat.

mitt romney 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
mitt romney 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
The vivid red, white and blue of the immense American flag serving as a backdrop to the wood-planked stage on which Mitt Romney strides is hardly necessary to give his meet-and-greet session a quintessentially American feel. After all, the room itself is a wide community hall attached to a fire station in a small New Hampshire town that passes for a suburb of the state capital. The audience members include weathered old men in plaid flannel shirts, young couples in sweatshirts and khakis and teenage girls in jeans and ponytails. And they have crowded rows of folding chairs to take part in that most American of New England traditions: bombarding the man who is running for the most powerful office in the world with questions both political and personal. Yet the object of all the attention, Republican candidate Mitt Romney, concludes on something of an Israeli note, albeit to make a point about America. To bolster his argument, Romney relates an experience he had with Israeli elder statesman President Shimon Peres. Someone asked him about the war in Iraq, and Peres, Romney tells the crowd, began his answer by saying, "America is unique in history by virtue of its willingness to sacrifice the lives of its sons and daughters for freedom for itself and for freedom of other people." It is this kind of reference supporters of Israel are looking for in their effort to better appraise a candidate whose resume features a stint as governor of Massachusetts and as savior of the Salt Lake City Olympics but scant credentials or even indicators on foreign policy. Without a voting history in Congress, like Arizona Senator John McCain, or a personal history of connection to the Jewish community, like former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, people search for clues such as these. They - meaning Jewish Republicans likely to vote for one of these three men to be their party's nominee - tend to like what they hear on the Middle East. But, it seems, not enough to back him in large numbers. His smooth-talking image makes him vulnerable to charges that he's talking the talk because of a search for votes rather than out of conviction, and the moves he's made to shore up that image might be music to the ears of other key constituents in the Republican Party but can sound off-key to Jewish voters. Not long into a speech at the Republican Jewish Coalition convention this fall, Romney elicited boos and hisses from the crowd. Of the right kind - ones that come from speaking disparagingly of a person loathed by the audience, a person whose very name elicits the feeling that it must be blotted out, Haman-style. So it was with a deft touch that Romney dropped the name Jimmy Carter - to take issue with the former president's critique of the security barrier - and continued to push all the right emotional buttons, linking, for starters, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rhetoric to that of Hitler ahead of the Holocaust and, later, saying that it was the ideology of radical jihad that was at the root of conflict in the Middle East rather than the lack of a Palestinian state. The other candidates speaking at the RJC forum didn't all manage to do that, and even many of the audience members supporting Romney's opponents were impressed by the job he did. Joel Hoppenstein, for one, a Giuliani booster who thought highly of the former New York mayor's performance, still enthused that "Governor Romney also spoke very well." He added, "I love Mitt Romney. I think he's fantastic." OFF STAGE, TOO, Romney speaks knowledgeably about the issues of concern to Jewish Republicans. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post after his New Hampshire town hall meeting in November, for instance, Romney distinguishes between elements in Fatah, suggesting that too broad a brush has been used to paint the Palestinian Authority faction rival of Hamas. "Even within Fatah there are voices of intolerance that are not dramatically disparate from those in Hamas," he says. He has other remarks which would be soothing to the RJC crowd. He is skeptical on the Annapolis conference: "At this stage we're now gathering parties to talk despite the fact that the Palestinians have not put in place the security institutions or the governmental institutions which were the doorway to the road map, and so my expectations are very modest." He is skeptical on Syria: "I have a very hard time understanding a Golan Heights discussion at this point in time, again with the Palestinians not having put in place the security and political institutions." And, speaking ahead of the release of the new US intelligence report, he expresses willingness to take tough steps against Iran, with or without the support of the international community: "You always like to have your friends standing with you, but you also take what action you believe is in the best interest of your own nation and civilization." At the RJC forum in October, declaring that he would act to stop a nuclear Iran, Romney even spelled out some of the measures a military confrontation with Iran might entail, going further than several other candidates in raising the possibility of taking that course of action. Maintaining that the taxed US military has the capability to attack Iran if necessary, he explained, "It's more likely that military action would be in the nature of blockade or bombardment or surgical strikes of one kind or another." Speaking more generally, he said, "There's a growing chorus of threats about the existence of Israel. I think it calls for a more explicit statement from America about our foreign policy priorities as regards Israel. And that is this: America will never allow the destruction of Israel." The presentation was impressive, said one Jewish Republican activist not affiliated with any candidate who heard him speak at the RJC event. But, the activist said, ultimately it didn't tell him much about whether to support Romney. "He's saying all the right things about US-Israel relations and the threat from Iran," he said, but added, "It just means that his speechwriters were more in tune and more on the mark than the other speechwriters." And, the activist said, while giving the crowd what it wants is standard political fare, for Romney it can be a liability. "One of Romney's problems is that people feel that he's too polished, and that feeds into the [charges] of flip-flopping and giving people what they want to hear," he said. "The flip-flopping, the hairdo that is perfect, the poise tend to make it so that people aren't really sure what he believes. So to the extent that he's saying the right things on Israel and on Iran, the importance of that is minimized by the impression that he'll say whatever he needs to get elected." Romney, he pointed out, doesn't have a long track record on issues connected to Israel, which he has visited twice, once this January when he gave a strong speech against Iran at the Herzliya Conference. Romney in his speech at the RJC forum did recall denying visiting Iranian leader Muhammad Khatami extra public funds for police protection when he was Massachusetts governor. But Giuliani, the crowd favorite and leading candidate with Republican Jews, countered with stories of having ejected Yasser Arafat from a UN concert held in New York while he was mayor, having rejected funds from a Saudi dignitary soon after September 11 and having ridden a bus in Jerusalem after a suicide bombing to show solidarity with Israelis. Giuliani even told an anecdote from a bar mitzva he attended in Manhattan. ROMNEY SUCCEEDED in winning the governorship of Massachusetts in 2002, no small feat for a Republican in one of the country's most liberal states. But that role had made it more difficult for him to garner the GOP nomination even as it gave him the political platform to launch a presidential campaign. Many of the positions he espoused on social issues as governor had made him a disagreeable choice for much of the committed conservative base so influential in selecting the Republican nominee. Since launching his presidential bid, Romney has disavowed most of those positions. He is no longer pro-choice on abortion. He has backed away from his support of gay rights. And he no longer backs gun control. While the changes cleared the way for Romney's campaign to appeal to conservatives, they also opened him up to charges of flip-flopping on crucial issues, putting political expediency ahead of principle and being a candidate of image rather than substance. He has been relatively successful, though, at winning over conservatives in the states where he's spent the most time and aired the most ads: Iowa and New Hampshire, hosts to the campaign's first caucus and primary respectively. These states' voters, who get the opening shot at choosing the party's nominee, are often influential in setting the tone for the rest of the race. While he lags in national polls - where Giuliani has dominated - Romney's strong position in the early states and strong fund-raising could make him a much more serious contender than the broader numbers suggest. He might well pull off wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, which could in turn give him a huge media bump and increase the perception of his ability to win. Soon after, on February 5, more than 20 states - including biggies like New York, California and Illinois - will vote, which should seal the nomination. Romney's hawkish stances on foreign policy - which includes big doses of railing against Islamic jihad - also haven't hurt. BUT SOMETHING else about Romney has hurt his chances: his faith. Romney is a Mormon, as are only 2 percent of Americans. Religious minorities have always faced a tough battle when it comes to seeking the presidency; when John F. Kennedy was running for office, he had to deal with attacks because of his Catholicism. Mormonism, though, is seen by some evangelical Christians - a Republican bedrock constituency - as not only suspect but downright heretical, a cult rather than a denomination of Christianity. Surveys have shown that one fifth to one third of Americans wouldn't vote for Romney because of his religion. One poll in Time magazine found that 30 percent of those surveyed said being Mormon "makes me less supportive" of a candidate; in contrast, only 11% felt similarly about Jews. While Romney has long led in Iowa, and in most polls of Republican voters in New Hampshire, he has lost ground recently to Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister and former governor of Arkansas who analysts say has been slyly using the "Christian card" to make inroads with the 40% of the state's population that describes itself as evangelical. The slip in the polls helped convince Romney to give a speech last week on the importance of religious tolerance in America and his refusal to distance himself from his faith. The issues that have hurt him with the evangelical community generally aren't significant liabilities when it comes to Jewish voters. Some Jews might be suspicious of Mormons or remember times of tension over their posthumous baptizing of Jews murdered in the Holocaust, but as voters they're already used to electing people whose religious backgrounds differ from theirs. "In the Jewish community, it never seems to be a problem," said Mel Sembler, a former ambassador who's now on Romney's finance team and accompanied him to Israel. "Most people in the Jewish community that I talk to, they identify with that [adhering to a minority faith], having been separated themselves through the centuries because of their religion." But if Jewish Republicans are less troubled by his political liabilities, then the antidotes are more irritating than soothing. His speech defending his religious background, which seems to have been well-received by many evangelicals, raised some red flags for Jews. While many appreciated his declaration that he wouldn't discuss the specifics of his faith for fear of enabling "the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution," they were less pleased that he still felt the need to declare, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind." And the political stands that he took in the speech - an appeal to conservative Christians - don't generally appeal to conservative (both lower and upper case) Jews. He decried the fact that "the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning" and backed erecting nativity scenes - and hanukkiot - in town squares. When he talked about how religious values informed his perspectives, he mentioned the right to life among other examples. All of which might reassure the evangelical community that Romney's conversion to a pro-life perspective is sincere. But the Jewish community isn't looking for a devoutly pro-life candidate. "The vast majority of Jewish Republicans - those engaged and those not politically engaged - are pro-choice," said one Jewish lobbyist with ties to the Republican Party. "Romney does himself no favor with Republican Jews by flip-flopping" on abortion and other social issues, he said. "I think it is a turn-off for the general Jewish voting public, who tend to be pro-choice, who tend to be pro-gay marriage. It affects the perception that he can't win because of his flip-flopping." For committed Jewish Republicans who want to elect a candidate who can win, that liability is very present according to polls. Romney has turned some heads and attracted some significant Jewish backers, but in the limited polling done of Jewish Republicans he hasn't seemed to resonate with Jewish voters in any way close to Giuliani, who also has the advantage of being the national frontrunner for the nomination. One of the few surveys done of Jewish Republicans - in Florida, one of the few places where Jewish Republicans are an important voting bloc - pollster Frank Luntz found that 42% backed Giuliani, while no one else broke out of the pack, which he attributed to Giuliani's strong appeal on national security as well as his moderation on social issues. Indeed, one of Joel Hoppenstein's reasons for supporting Giuliani despite his admiration for Romney is that the former's stance on issues across the board matches up with his own so well. Sembler said he wasn't surprised by Luntz's numbers because so many Floridian Jews have migrated from New York and still retain a loyalty to the old New York mayor. "When I go to a Devil Rays game," he said of the Florida baseball team, "and we're playing the [New York] Yankees, three-quarters of the crowd stands up and cheers for the Yankees." But that just underscored the point that Jews are often New Yorkers, as is Giuliani - he's one of them. Romney might be talking the talk, but he hasn't walked the walk. Quoting Peres doesn't quite get him there. But it doesn't hurt.