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Amid roasted pigs, country music and rabbinical blessings, Romney seeks to define himself

by Ron Kampeas, JTA

August 28, 2012 | 10:19 am

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Bettendorf, Iowa, on Aug. 22. Photo by REUTERS/John Gress

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Bettendorf, Iowa, on Aug. 22. Photo by REUTERS/John Gress

Whole barbecued pigs, cheerleaders and elegies to skinny-dipping farmers’ daughters.

That was the organized noise Sunday night at the opening bash of the Republican National Convention at Tropicana Field, the home of Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg.

For those seeking Jewish content, a noted rabbi was set to kick off the formal proceedings on Tuesday, and scattered through the rain-drenched towns of Tampa Bay were a number of events addressing the pro-Israel community’s foreign policy concerns.

At the opening party, delegates availed themselves of free wine and dug into the roasted pigs, a Cuban delicacy, while watching cheerleaders grind to Rodney Atkins singing “Farmer‘s Daughter“ and “What I Love About the South” (“Hot women skinny swimming, barely belly button deep”).

Other noises reverberating across Tampa Bay: There were the winds roiling the waters that lap the bridge that links Tampa with St. Petersburg, echoes of Tropical Storm Isaac, heading west toward New Orleans. The storm mostly missed the Tampa region, but its threat was potent enough to shut down the convention’s first formal day on Monday.

And there was political noise, too: Tea Partiers met at rallies in the region to protest what they depicted as an attempt by Mitt Romney, the presumptive presidential candidate, to marginalize the hard-line conservatives as he attempts to steer the party toward the center ahead of November’s elections.

“This is what the Tea Party is not: We are not an unwanted second-class political party,” U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a leader of the movement, was quoted by the Tampa Bay Times as telling a packed church hall on Sunday.

There were reports that small groups of delegates in state delegations would protest either by not voting at the convention or by switching votes to libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the only contender from the primaries who has not formally relinquished his nomination fight.

Followers of Paul unleashed their anger with the party’s establishment—and particularly its advocacy for a robust U.S. posture overseas—at a packed rally on the University of South Florida campus.

Paul, to cheers, blamed recent wars on “powerful special interests behind a foreign policy of intervention and the military industrial complex” and said “neocons” are “all over the place, and they’re not in one place, they’re in all of the parties.”

The rally was structured as a passing of the torch from Paul, 76, to his son, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), 49. When Rand Paul appeared, the crowd, estimated at 7,000, began chanting “16!”—underscoring the expectation that he would be a contender for the GOP nomination in four years.

The younger Paul has avoided the associations with bigots and the outright hostility to Israel that have frustrated his father’s multiple bids for the presidency. He has, however, embraced Ron Paul’s isolationism, opposing foreign assistance, including to Israel. And at the Sunday rally he posited a new challenge—an audit of the Pentagon—to a Romney campaign that has pledged increased defense spending, in part to make it clear to Iran that it was not reducing its profile in the Middle East.

“Republicans need to acknowledge that not every dollar is sacred or well spent in the military,” Rand Paul said.

There also were remnants of the moderate Republican Party nipping at the edges of the convention. Events were planned for the Log Cabin Republicans, an umbrella for gays in the party, and Republicans for Choice, an abortion rights group.

The convention schedule, constantly shifting because of the weather, was a template of Romney’s struggle to define himself and to accommodate the party’s multiple strands. Organizers pointed reporters particularly to the primetime 10-11 p.m. slot on Tuesday that featured Romney’s wife, Ann, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Both choices were aimed squarely at attempts by Democrats and the Obama campaign to depict Romney as a flip-flopper beholden to ultra-conservatives. Ann Romney, seen as his most appealing surrogate, would once and for all humanize him, and Christie would show how a moderate Republican could prevail in a Democratic state, as Romney had done when he governed Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007.

The party’s conservative wing also will be present, with speeches by Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who was Romney’s most pronounced social conservative challenger during the campaign, and Rand Paul. There also will be a video tribute to Ron Paul, an event that Jewish Democrats have derided.

Notably absent as speakers were any remnant of the past decade’s GOP bids for the presidency. Former President George W. Bush is not present or speaking, nor is his vice president, Dick Cheney. Missing also is the 2008 ticket, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor.

Romney has, however, surrounded himself with foreign policy advisers from past presidents. Most notably for the pro-Israel community, his top Middle East adviser is Den Senor, who has close ties with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and was the U.S. spokesman in Iraq in the period following the war that ousted Saddam Hussein.

AIPAC, as it has at past conventions, was running a number of closed events with top campaign advisers in the Tampa area during the convention, and is planning to do the same next week in Charlotte, N.C., when the Democrats meet. On the pro-Israel lobby’s agenda in Tampa is a bid to understand how Romney would distinguish himself from President Obama in confronting Iran and a broader Middle East roiled by change—the principal source of tension between the president and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

One signal of consistency with the Obama presidency emerged last week during platform debate when Romney surrogates, led by Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), pushed back against bids to remove a commitment to eventual Palestinian statehood from the platform. Talent noted at the time that two states remains the official Israeli government position.

Jewish officials, committed to building bipartisan consensus on Israel and other issues, expressed concerns about navigating a polarized Washington. At an American Jewish Committee event on energy policy, Richard Foltin, the AJC’s director of legislative affairs, acknowledged the difficulties of making the case for an AJC energy security policy that strives for a middle ground between exploiting U.S. natural resources, which Republicans favor, and alternatives to fossil fuels, the choice of Democrats.

“It’s our role as advocates to say we are not free to desist, even though we are dealing in a polarized and difficult time to move those agendas,” Foltin said.

The convention schedule also underscored Romney’s bid to make more diverse a party that has become increasingly identified with white Christians. Delivering Tuesday’s opening invocation is Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, the scion of a distinguished rabbinic family who has opined on (small c) conservative issues. He also is the director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and associate rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Also delivering blessings are Hispanic evangelical leader Sammy Rodriguez; Ishwar Singh, a leader in Central Florida’s Sikh community (who approached convention organizers about delivering an invocation in the wake of the recent massacre at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin); Archbishop Demetrios, the primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America; Ken and Priscilla Hutchins, the president and matron of the Mormon temple in Romney’s home base of Boston; and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the head of New York’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese and the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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