Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s surge to the front of the GOP presidential pack has Jewish Republicans reckoning with a field that suddenly looks much different than it did just a few weeks ago.
According to the latest Gallup poll, 29 percent of likely Republican voters favor Perry, with 17 percent supporting former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the previous front-runner.
Romney, seen as the business-friendly favorite of establishment Republicans, has been popular with Jewish donors to the GOP. But while Perry’s harder-edged conservatism and religion-tinged rhetoric may make him a tougher sell to centrists, prominent Jewish GOPers say he’ll have little trouble courting Republican Jews who are hungry for a victory in 2012.
“I think it’s safe to say that everyone, Jews included, was surprised” to see Perry eclipse Romney, said Tevi Troy, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former liaison to the Jewish community in George W. Bush’s White House.
But, he added, “I have not seen evidence that Republican Jews are uncomfortable with Perry. Everyone will of course have their preferences in the primaries, but GOP Jews are in ABO mode—they will support ‘Anyone But Obama’ come November of 2012.”
Republican Jews don’t have to be enamored with Perry in order to vote for him, says Noam Neusner, a former Bush speechwriter who succeeded Troy as the White House’s Jewish liaison.
“If he’s the nominee, Republican Jews will support him,” Neusner said. “They may not be enthusiastic about him, but they’re not enthusiastic about Romney, either.”
Mark Lezell, a lawyer, Republican fundraiser and Romney supporter from Rockville, Md., called the Perry surge “unexpected,” but he still believes that the “smart bet remains with Romney.”
“In the Jewish community right now, the money is overwhelmingly with Romney,” Lezell said. “At this point I feel very good about Romney getting the nomination.”
Republican candidates such as U.S. Reps. Ron Paul of Texas and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota are still doing reasonably well in the polls—the Gallup survey pegged their support at 13 percent and 10 percent, respectively—and they have helped push the tenor of the campaign to the right, observers say. But the race appears to be narrowing with Perry’s entry.
“This race is between Romney and Perry and the other candidates are filler for campaign reporters,” said one Jewish political strategist who requested anonymity.
Both Perry and Romney are seen by Jewish Republicans as strongly pro-Israel, as is the rest of the Republican field, with the notable exception of Paul.
“You’ve got a bunch of pro-Israel people and then Ron Paul,” Troy said. “They’re all out elbowing each other to say, ‘I’m the pro-Israel guy.’ “
Jennifer Rubin, a conservative Washington Post blogger, approvingly noted that Perry mentioned Israel in his campaign’s kickoff speech, criticizing President Obama’s policies toward the Jewish state.
Romney, for his part, has built a reputation as a candidate who eschews the type of religious appeals that make Jewish voters of all political stripes uncomfortable, several Jewish Republicans noted.
He “doesn’t appear to frighten people in the Jewish community,” Troy noted, adding that Romney is “defined in the Jewish community, and in a positive way.”
Romney‘s focus on the economy, jobs and national security appeals to conservative Jews and potential swing voters, Jewish Republicans said.
The strategy “makes him potentially a more comforting alternative to a swing voter than a candidate who spends more time talking about issues that might be more confrontational to certain voters,” said Dan Schnur, a California-based political strategist who served as the communications director for Arizona Sen. John McCain during the 2000 GOP presidential primaries.
Perry, on the other hand, has adopted a range of conservative social stances, and puts his faith front and center. That type of rhetoric, Schnur said, “might make it more difficult for [Perry] to attract the Jewish voter—even someone who agrees with him on economic matters or issues relating to Israel and the Middle East.”
Troy, however, suggested that Perry is getting a bad rap.
“I think Perry-phobia exists in many places, and the Jewish community is one of those places,” Troy said. “A lot of people say to me, ‘I’m afraid of this Perry guy,’ but I don’t think there’s any basis for it.”
Perry’s supporters point to his record as governor. Perry has more than a decade of executive governing experience—more than even Romney, noted Steve Papermaster, a Jewish Perry devotee from Texas.
“Up until today, until right now, he’s dealing with the current economy, not just the economy of four, six or eight years ago,” said Papermaster, who was appointed in 2001 by President Bush to the President’s Council of Advisors in Science and Technology. “Romney has got experience as a governor, but it’s a bit dated to be honest.”
Perry also appeals to broad segments of the Republican electorate, Schnur said.
“Perry doesn’t duplicate either Romney or Bachmann’s support, he overlaps with them both,” Schnur said. “He’s the most Tea Party candidate the establishment can deal with and the most establishment candidate the Tea Party can handle.”
Schnur said that in order for Perry to maintain his current edge, he will have “to prove himself in debates and fundraising, and the day-to-day challenges on the campaign” trail.
Perry has sparked controversy on the campaign trail, notably warning the Federal Reserve’s chairman, Ben Bernanke, not to print more money before the presidential elections because doing so would be “almost treasonous” and treated “pretty ugly down in Texas.”
While hailing Perry’s pro-Israel bona fides, The Washington Post’s Rubin wrote that the Texas governor “has a way to go in demonstrating gravitas and command of a range of critical policy issues. He’s going to need to spruce up his rhetoric and elevate his tone.”
And David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter and outspoken internal conservative movement critic, warned that Perry’s criticisms of Social Security and Medicare could “reverse this election from a referendum on President Obama’s record to a referendum on Rick Perry’s intentions.”
Perry, however, has earned plaudits from one surprising corner of the Jewish world: Kinky Friedman, a country singer, mystery writer and self-proclaimed “Jewish cowboy” who lost to Perry in the 2006 Texas gubernatorial election.
In an Aug. 24 Daily Beast article titled “Kinky for Perry,” Friedman labeled Perry a “mensch” and praised him as “the nuts-and-bolts kind of guy you want in” the White House.
“So would I support Rick Perry for president? Hell, yes!” Friedman wrote. “As the last nail that hasn’t been hammered down in this country, I agree with Rick that there are already too damn many laws, taxes, regulations, panels, committees, and bureaucrats.”
Friedman later reportedly clarified in a radio interview that his article was not meant as an endorsement of Perry.
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