WASHINGTON (JTA) – Rudy Giuliani is emerging among the Republican presidential candidates as the clear favorite of the party’s top Jewish activists.
The former New York City mayor significantly outpaced fellow GOP hopefuls John McCain and Mitt Romney in raising money from the 60 board members of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Giuliani also received the most applause last week at the RJC’s candidates forum.
The RJC is widely seen as the party’s hub of Jewish involvement, boasting a board that includes top donors and presidential confidants, as well as former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Giuliani, having supported abortion rights and gun control, has amazed many political operatives and pundits with his ability to maintain the lead in national GOP polls, although Romney is the pacesetter in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Some GOP activists say Giuliani’s credentials as a two-time mayor of New York and staunch defender of Israel makes him an ideal choice for many Republican Jews.
“I think a lot of New Yorkers like his tough stand on terrorism and his tough stance with regard to Iran getting nukes,” said Morrie Amitay, a former executive director of AIPAC and now a vice president at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.
According to campaign contribution reports, Giuliani has raised $58,750 from the leaders of the nation’s foremost Republican Jewish organization, compared to $35,900 for McCain and $31,200 for Romney. No other GOP candidate has received financial contributions from RJC board members.
Seventeen of the 60 board members gave Giuliani the maximum $4,600 donation allowed for the primary and general election. Many of those same donors gave large sums, though not the maximum, to McCain, a U.S. senator from Arizona, and Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts.
Texas venture capitalist Fred Zeidman was a major donor to President Bush’s campaigns in 2000 and 2004, and long has been a McCain supporter. Though he gave the maximum amount to McCain, he also contributed $1,050 to the Giuliani campaign.
“The mayor has governed over New York City, and most of the Jewish population is in New York, Florida and California,” said Zeidman, who was appointed by Bush to chair the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Counci.
Zeidman praised Giuliani, but among other issues cited foreign policy experience in saying that McCain was the better choice.
“There’s not one thing wrong with Rudy Giuliani’s position on Israel, but in John McCain’s history you can see that support,” he said. “I think we’re not picking the lesser of evils. I think we’re picking the greater of greats.”
Zeidman’s son, Jay, a former White House liaison to the Jewish community, worked for McCain until this summer, when the candidate drastically reduced his staff due to budget concerns. The younger Zeidman still plans to vote for McCain.
Another of Bush’s former Jewish liaisons, Noam Neusner, worked for Romney’s Commonwealth PAC this year. He officially left the campaign, though he remains a supporter.
Neusner penned the speech on Middle East policy that Romney delivered in January at the Herzliya conference, an annual gathering of top leaders of the Israeli security establishment. Romney staked out a hard-line position on confronting Iran.
Still, Neusner said, he isn’t surprised that many Repubilcan Jews are backing Giuliani – at least for now.
“I think what we’re seeing in donations is very much a reflection that the great majority of Jewish donors are in the Northeast – New Jersey and New York,” he said. “They’ve known Giuliani for many years. He’s the former mayor of the most Jewish city in the country.”
Dr. Ben Chouake, a McCain supporter and the president of NORPAC, a pro-Israel, bipartisan political action committee, echoed the view that geography has helped Giuliani. Despite being a member of the McCain campaign’s finance committee, Chouake said he would be equally pleased if Giuliani took the Republican nomination.
Judging from the applause and interviews at the end of the daylong RJC forum last week, rank-and-file members of the group appeared to give Giuliani the edge.
The applause was especially strong when Giuliani reminded Jewish donors of his proven ability to win over voters from both parties.
“I’m the one who can be a coast-to-coast candidate,” he said.
His tough talk on Iran also earned long applause.
“I guarantee you,” he said, “we will never find out what they will do with nuclear weapons because they’re not going to get them.”
One audience member, Jeremy Kohn, praised Giuliani for his role in returning a $10 million charitable donation to Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. After touring Ground Zero shortly after the attacks, the prince drew Giuliani’s ire by saying that America’s support of the State of Israel led to the terrorist strikes.
Giuliani “was the most decisive and toughest. He’s not afraid to offend people. He’s not afraid to stand up to them,” Kohn said. “If we don’t realize who our friends are and who our enemies are, then we can’t possibly win. If we do have the moral clarity to act on it, we can’t possibly lose.”
Lynn Newport of Atlanta also decided after the event to back Giuliani, calling him “my favorite.”
“He spoke his mind,” Newport said. “I think he had an accurate understanding of the problems we face. He was decisive.”
Another attendee, Abigail Rosenthal, voiced support for Giuliani. In the morning she had attended a breakfast with the candidates’ wives.
“Mrs. Giuliani and Mrs. Romney had the largest pictures of their husbands,” she said. “They’re intimate with these men and how they praise them is revealing.”