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GOP hopefuls want Bush Jews

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The Republican Jewish Coalition, which represents a constituency that has been among the most loyal to President Bush, will feature five candidates hoping to succeed him at the group's forum Tuesday. (Joyce N. Boghosian)

The Republican Jewish Coalition, which represents a constituency that has been among the most loyal to President Bush, will feature five candidates hoping to succeed him at the group’s forum Tuesday. (Joyce N. Boghosian)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – Each of the leading GOP presidential candidates to some degree has run away from the Bush legacy. But this week they will be making their case before one of the president’s most loyal constituencies: Republican Jews.

The Republican Jewish Coalition on Tuesday is hosting a forum in Washington for presidential hopefuls. Six of the party’s nine candidates were invited, and five will attend: former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, and current U.S. Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Sam Brownback of Kansas.

Matt Brooks, the RJC’s executive director, said he expects “defining” speeches in terms of foreign policy.

“The emphasis clearly is going to be on foreign policy,” Brooks said. “And a number of them are planning to make their more defining foreign policy speeches. They’ll be putting together snippets they’ve said before but tying it up to one foreign policy.”

Brooks says the candidates are conscious that more than the RJC members in the room will be watching.

“They’ll be watched nationally by primary voters, and internationally leaders will be watching, considering some of the challenges that will face the next president,” he said. “They look at these things and parse very closely the words the candidates say.”

The RJC event comes at a time when the president’s approval ratings are perpetually hovering around 30 percent and many Republican constituencies, lawmakers and candidates are walking away from the Bush White House. Many leading Republican Jews, meanwhile, remain fiercely loyal to the president and to the most hawkish elements of his foreign policy agenda.

Brooks himself this summer joined two other RJC board members – Ari Fleischer, Bush’s former White House spokesman, and Sheldon Adelson, a casino mogul – in establishing FreedomsWatch, a group dedicated to preserving what likely has become the president’s most unpopular legacy, the Iraq occupation.

Most of the new group’s funders are well known as the RJC’s principal backers, including Mel Sembler, a former ambassador to Rome, and Richard Fox, an RJC founder.

On several fronts the RJC continues to stake out right-of-center positions, even as Bush and the GOP candidates have moderated their stands.

For example, in recent months the Bush administration has raised its voice on the need to deal with global warming, yet in its September-October bulletin, the Republican Jewish organization mocks Democrats who focus on the issue.

The Democratic front-runner, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), is criticized for asserting that “we should not hesitate to engage in the world’s most difficult conflicts on a diplomatic front,” though Giuliani has essentially made the same argument.

Republican Jews also have emerged as one of the few constituencies willing to touch what has become a third rail in congressional politics: Bush’s determination to roll back parts of the popular State Children’s Health Insurance Program, a program that reaches children from families that earn above the Medicaid threshold but still cannot afford insurance.

SCHIP has wall-to-wall Jewish community backing, but in recent weeks Noam Neusner, Bush’s former Jewish liaison, defended the president’s position in the Forward and Michael David Epstein, a senior RJC activist, did the same on JTA.

Brooks said such loyalty is natural for a president that has proven second to none in his backing for Israel.

“Bush has earned it,” he said. “Here’s a president who in very difficult and challenging times, especially on core issues like Israel, was there for us and was one of the only world leaders standing shoulder to shoulder with Israel.”

Among other instances, Bush gave Israel slack in putting down a flare-up in the Palestinian intifada in the spring of 2002 and in striking back against Hezbollah in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. Also in April 2004 for recognizing some Israeli settlements as a reality on the ground and repudiating a right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel.

That might translate into tough questions for some of the candidates. The major GOP hopefuls back the president’s tough approach to forcing Iran to suspend its suspected nuclear weapons program, but Giuliani argued recently that diplomacy has been neglected as an option.

McCain and Romney have backed the engagement in Iraq but been sharply critical of how it has been carried out.

Brownback last week backed a pro-settler initiative to extend Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank, directly undercutting Bush’s attempt to leave a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one of his legacies. The Bush administration is convening a peace conference to that end that will take place next month in Annapolis, Md.

Such transitions are natural, Brooks suggested, adding that he expected most of the candidates will emphasize differences with the Democratic front-runners, Clinton and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who have emphasized diplomacy in dealing with Iran.

The RJC forum, Brooks said, is aimed at reminding “the Jewish community that it will have some important choices to make as we start to address a post-Bush environment.”

Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, was invited but could not attend.

Not invited were long-shots U.S. Reps. Duncan Hunter of California, Tom Tancredo of Colorado and Ron Paul of Texas. Paul was rejected because of his consistent voting record against U.S. assistance to Israel and his criticism of the pro-Israel lobby.

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