By the third or fourth time Mitt Romney called the Iranian nuclear threat “the greatest national security threat we face,” a good number of the few dozen youngish Jews who had gathered at Federation headquarters to watch Monday evening’s Presidential debate appeared to have stopped listening.
Some were perusing their Twitter feeds, others were nursing plastic cups of kosher wine, and a handful were busy finishing off the sliders on pretzel bread on the buffet near the back of the room.
Even in the Federation boardroom, where there was no shortage of interest from voters in the candidates’ pro-Israel bona fides, people seemed well entrenched in their positions, and little they heard from the men projected on the two big screens at the front was going to change their minds.
“Certainly, the Israeli question is going to very important to me,” John Mirisch, vice mayor of the nearby city of Beverly Hills, told me near the beginning of the debate.
Mirisch, a registered Republican who’s a self-described social liberal (he’ll be voting for Prop. 34 on Nov. 6, which would abolish the death penalty in California), said he wasn’t too happy about casting his vote for either Romney or President Barack Obama.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been a fan of a candidate for President,” he said. “I was a fan of Al Gore.”
Well aware that the issues of greatest importance to most American voters are domestic, Romney and Obama frequently pivoted away from the prompts being lobbed at them by CBS News’s Bob Schieffer to address subjects including education, fiscal policy and who would best prepare America for another generation of prosperity and economic growth.
The biggest cheer from the crowd came from the more vocal of the Democrats, who exulted when Obama responded to Romney’s criticism that the U.S. Navy’s fleet was smaller than it had been in nearly a century with a barb about how the army also had “fewer horses and bayonets."
But as expected, the debate did feature a number of exchanges between the candidates about Israel. On more than one occasion during Monday evening’s debate, Romney made reference to the President’s perceived distance from Israel, a criticism that clearly had resonance among some at the Federation’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters.
The President’s supporters in the audience were audibly impressed by the response Obama had ready for Romney’s criticism of his not having visited Israel during his first term. Obama described his 2008 visit to Israel as a candidate and drew a sharp distinction between his itinerary -- which included trips to Yad Vashem and Sederot -- and Romney’s, which featured two fundraisers attended by wealthy Republican Jewish donors.
“His response about visiting Israel as a candidate was very effective,” said Leeor Alpern, President of the Los Angeles chapter of Democrats for Israel, who called the criticism of Obama for not visiting Israel “a straw man." The last two Presidents to visit in their first terms were Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, the latter for the funeral of the assassinated Israeli Prime Minster Yitzhak Rabin, Alpern said.
Obama’s opponents, like Ron Rothstain, were undeterred. He pointed to President’s lack of a visit to Israel as just one piece of evidence of the friction he saw between Obama and the Jewish state.
“A couple of weeks ago, Bibi wanted a one-on-one meeting with him after the whole U.N. address, and he wanted to be on ‘The View’ instead, having no time to set aside for him,” Rothstain said a few minutes after the debate ended . “So clearly there are issues there.”