With the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary behind him, Mitt Romney is on to the South Carolina primary Jan. 21, where polls put him narrowly in the lead. Should he win in the face of a blistering $3.4 million negative ad campaign, courtesy of a super PAC backing Newt Gingrich, he would be poised to win in Florida Jan. 31 and become the first non-incumbent Republican presidential candidate to sweep the first four primaries.
And that would please Jewish Republicans, analysts say.
“Of the entire field, Romney has the greatest upside among Jewish voters,” said Jacques Berlinerblau, a professor of Jewish civilization and an expert in religion and politics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. “Of the remaining Republican field, he is the one Jews feel most comfortable with – he’s kind of heimish.”
Although Romney’s Mormon faith was an issue when he ran for the presidency four years ago, it has not been this year. And Berlinerblau said he has detected “an unspoken understanding” between Jews and Muslims: both are “family oriented, professionally successful – and not being white Anglo-Saxons and evangelicals can also bind.”
“Romney is the one candidate, along with [former Utah Gov. John] Huntsman, who can make serious inroads in the Jewish community,” he added. “He is strong on Israel and exudes a kind of statesman-like steadiness that Jews are looking for; he doesn’t shoot from the hip.”
L. Sandy Maisel, director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs at Colby College in Waterville, Me., agreed that although there is no data on where Jews are headed in the Republican primaries, “Romney is the most likely candidate.”
“He and Huntsman are the least out there on social issues,” he said. “Jews do not go for those considered extreme.”
Although Maisel said he believes Huntsman would probably do better in November against President Barack Obama, “if he got the Republican nomination there is a greater chance that a third party on the right would enter the election. If Romney won the nomination, I don’t think that would happen.”
The polls now say Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, would give Obama a run for his money and perhaps even win, Maisel pointed out.
Asked if he believed Romney was solidifying his support in the Jewish community, Berlinerblau predicted that Jewish Republican organizations will soon “begin to explore building bridges and establishing preliminary contacts between the Romney campaign and influential Jews in the United States.”
Fred Zeidman, a major Jewish Republican fundraiser and Romney supporter from Houston, said such contacts were made long ago.
“If you take a look at every major Jewish fundraiser, we’ve all been with Romney since day one, and we’re doing more and more to expose him to the Jewish community,” he said. “Just look at the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition — we’re all there.”
Romney is said to have cultivated Jewish Republicans since his unsuccessful campaign four years ago, and with only a few exceptions that support has held firm.
“My feeling is that if Mitt Romney is the [Republican] choice, there won’t be any pushback in the Jewish community,” Zeidman added. “They could — with arms wide open — support and endorse him.”
Asked how much the $3.4 million negative ad campaign in South Carolina is going to hurt Romney, Zeidman replied: “Funding through super PACS gets you on TV but it does not pay the bills to set up an organization.”
Another Romney supporter, Herb London, president of the Hudson Institute and a 1989 Republican candidate for mayor of New York, said he considers Romney “the most reasonable and equitable of the candidates.”
“It will be hard for many Jews to vote for a Republican, but he appears more moderate and easier for the Jews to vote for,” he said. “This election will be a referendum on Obama and his stand on Israel. … Romney is solid on Israel.”
Gilbert Kahn, a professor of political science at Kean University in Union, N.J., said it now appears the Republican nomination is “Romney’s to lose.” He said the views of both Romney and Huntsman “are probably the most acceptable” to Jewish voters.
“Romney seems to have wide but tepid support,” he said. “People are not enthusiastic about him. … If Romney does well in South Carolina and follows that with a strong showing in Florida, it is probably all over.”
Polls show Romney with a double-digit lead in Florida over his nearest rivals.
“Florida is a most interesting [contest],” Kahn said, noting that it is the first of the primary states with a sizeable Jewish population.
“There are certain segments of the Jewish community who want anybody but Obama, others who want a moderate Republican and still others who support Obama,” he said. “Obama for the Jewish community is a very mixed bag. You have right wing and Orthodox who are ready to throw him to the wolves.”
He pointed out that he recently saw a lawn sign there that read: “A vote for a Democrat is a vote against Israel.”
Asked what would happen if Texas Rep. Ron Paul were to be the surprise Republican nominee, Kahn said simply: “A lot of Jews would think twice [about supporting him], even within the hard-line right wing. And I’m not sure how genuinely enthusiastic Jews are for [former Pennsylvania Sen.] Rick Santorum or [former House Speaker Newt] Gingrich, despite [Sheldon] Adelson’s $5 million” contribution to a pro-Gingrich super PAC.
Despite a level of comfort Jews may have with Romney, William Rosenberg, a professor of political science at Drexel University in Philadelphia, said “Romney may be strong on jobs and the economy, but if the election is on foreign affairs, he has never been an ambassador or a member of Congress. And when he speaks of his support for Israel, he has no track record or experience.”
In addition, Rosenberg said, Obama would also be able to point out that Jews had major positions in his administration, including two Jews who served as chief of staff, a reference to Rahm Emanuel and Jack Lew, who was tapped this week to replace William Daley.
“And Obama was the first president to have a Passover seder in the White House,” he said. “He clearly has personal and philosophical connections to the Jewish community and to Jewish philosophy in general and so shouldn’t be overlooked.”