More than 500 Jewish Republicans have signed up to hear Newt Gingrich Friday in Delray Beach, Fla., as they seek to make up their minds ahead of Tuesday’s Florida Republican presidential primary.
“This is our coming out,” said Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the West Palm Beach Republican Party. “We’ve never had 500 of us in the same place. We are getting noisy and don’t care so much anymore that the liberals won’t be our friends unless we sell out our grandchildren and Israel.”
Dinerstein declined to say whom he is supporting in Tuesday’s election, except to say: “So long as the next president is not Ron Paul or Barack Obama, Israel will be the winner.”
He said Ron Paul is in the state to take part in televised debates but little else because he has little chance of winning. Florida is the only state in the nation in which the winner walks off with all of the state’s 50 delegates; the other states award delegates proportionately based on their primary vote.
The most recent poll puts Gingrich ahead in Florida by 9 percent, but it was taken before Monday night’s debate and before Mitt Romney, Gingrich’s chief Republican opponent, released his tax returns. They showed that he had income in the last two years of more than $42 million and paid $6.2 million in taxes at an effective rate averaging 14 percent.
The Republican Jewish Coalition is putting together Friday’s event and another one Thursday for Romney in which John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, will stand in for Romney.
Tuesday’s primary voting is open only to registered Republicans, unlike the previous primary voting in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Florida is also the largest of the states to hold a Republican primary thus far, and it has the largest number of Jews.
“It’s hard to tell who Jewish Republicans are going to support in the primary,” said Larry Levy, executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University on Long Island. “I doubt they will be comfortable with [Rick] Santorum because they have not had a lot of experience with him. Gingrich is probably going to be very appealing because Orthodox Jews have known him a long time and know his support for the Israel has deep roots. When he had the powerful position as speaker of the House, Congress was very hawkishly supportive of Israel.”
Romney, on the other hand, “is a bit of a wild card,” Levy said. “He makes many moderate Republicans comfortable and the party establishment comfortable, but most Jews whose primary political interest revolves around Israel don’t know much about him.”
But Herb London, a former Republican candidate for mayor of New York City, said he continues to believe that Romney is “the frontrunner and that he will get the nomination. … The newspapers want a race and are doing all in their power to have one. Gingrich had a significant victory Tuesday [in South Carolina], but that is not sustainable elsewhere.”
He said Santorum is staying in the race in the event “someone stumbles.”
“If you are still in the race, you might be the beneficiary of another’s weakness,” London said. “But if he does not do well in Florida, it’s over for him. And the only reason why Paul is still in the race is to influence some delegates and the platform. He can’t possibly win.”
Asked his assessment of Gingrich, London said: “There are too many problems associated with him and he may step on a verbal land mine — say something that is outlandish and foolish.”
Although Gingrich’s debate performances have been good, London said the public wants more than that.
“If that was all that is needed, William Buckley should have been president,” he said. “And just because someone is a good debater, it doesn’t mean he has the managerial skills needed to be president.”
But investor Lawrence Kadish of Westbury, L.I., said he is still convinced Gingrich is the best man for the White House.
“The Jewish people — if they were paying attention — should look at the record he has of solid support for Israel,” he said. “And he has made a commitment that if he becomes president, the American Embassy would be moved to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.”
Gingrich has also said, controversially, that the Palestinians are “an invented people.”
Romney, on the other hand, has been quoted as saying that he would consult with Israel before considering moving the embassy. And he has reportedly said he would be “open to examining the issue” of releasing Jonathan Pollard, who has already served 25 years in prison after pleading guilty to spying for Israel.
Kadish said that although Gingrich has not addressed the Pollard issue, “there are rumors that if he is elected president, [Pollard] will be taken care of. I’m hearing from people that they expect that to happen.”
Asked about the other candidates regarding their views on Israel, Kadish said that aside from Paul, who wants to end all foreign aid and pursue a largely isolationist foreign policy, “the other candidates are OK but it is just abstract. With Gingrich, it is commitments. In his belly he is going to do [what is right in relation to Israel] and he understands. That’s why [Jewish] people like [casino mogul] Shelly Adelson [and his wife Miriam] are doing good things for him.”
He was referring to the $5 million that Adelson and his wife each gave to a super PAC in support of Gingrich.
“We need a hard guy for hard times,” Kadish added. “America and Israel are in danger and people who give real thought to this understand that Gingrich is the best man to get our country straightened out and protect our allies. The Jewish community has to understand where its friends are, and they are in the Evangelical community.”
But Ari Berman, a political writer for the left-wing Nation, who has been covering the Republican primaries, said he sees little difference between Romney and Gingrich on Israel.
“Both say they are better on Israel than Obama, and they have both gone out of their way to be incredibly pro-Netanyahu,” he said, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“My view is that Obama is not trying to be reflexively pro-Netanyahu but to have more of a pro-peace position,” Berman said. “But he has defended Israel, most recently at the United Nations, and he doesn’t want much daylight between his administration and Netanyahu going into the general election.
“It’s not just about Israel but Iran too, and both Romney and Gingrich say that Iran poses an existential threat to Israel and that Obama is underplaying the threat. That is the key wedge issue in the Jewish community now — not so much between the Republicans but between the Republicans and Obama.”
Nevertheless, Berman said he believes only a small number of Jews will be voting against Obama in the general election.
Four years ago, Obama received 78 percent of the Jewish vote.
But many Republican Jews in Florida believe they have a chance to cut into Obama’s Jewish vote this year. Fred Karlinsky, a Tallahassee lawyer, predicted, “A number of Democrats will cross over to the Republican ticket because they are unhappy with the positions the president has taken. For the first time in their lives, they will be voting Republican because the president made promises on the economy that have not come true.”
Mel Sembler of St. Petersburg, a former U.S. ambassador to Italy, said he backed Romney in his presidential bid in 2007 and is supporting him again this year.
“Jews say they have had it with Obama, and Israel is usually the first, second or third reason why,” he said. “Sometimes it is the economy … but there will be a movement in the Jewish community away from Obama.”
Should Gingrich win Tuesday’s primary, it would give his candidacy a significant boost, generating enough momentum and money to help him build the truly national campaign he has lacked so far.
“It won’t be a knockout punch, but victories in South Carolina and Florida would be extremely significant,” explained Larry Epstein, a political analyst and former adviser to two Republican congressmen.
On the other hand, he said, a Gingrich win in Florida would cause other “Republican candidates to have a collective nervous breakdown, because his unfavorable ratings are so high”—nearly 60 percent in some polls—that they fear he would bring down the entire Republican ticket.