WASHINGTON (JTA) – Mitt Romney’s pitch to Jewish voters breaks down into three components: His tough line on Iran; his record as a Republican governor who worked well with Democrats; and his belonging to an oft-misunderstood religious minority.
Romney boasts a master’s degree in business from Harvard and enjoyed phenomenal success during his 14-year career orchestrating leveraged buyouts as the chairman of Bain Capital.
As the governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007, he worked with a Democratic Legislature and an overwhelmingly liberal Jewish community to enact a groundbreaking “Health Care for All” law. He has a scion of a famed Mormon family; his father was Michigan’s governor.
In his presidential pitch to the Jewish community, Romney has focused heavily on his support for Israel and condemnation of Iran.
Romney outlined a multi-tiered plan for dealing with Iran in a statement last June to The Israel Project. It included strategies to expand divestment efforts against the Islamic Republic, diplomatic isolation, indicting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for incitement to genocide under the Geneva Conventions, and pressing Arab nations and NATO to create an alliance that would force Iran to give up its nuclear aspirations.
One of President Bush’s former Jewish liaisons, speechwriter Noam Neusner, worked for Romney’s Commonwealth PAC last year.
Neusner penned the speech – delivered at the Herzliya Conference in Israel at the beginning of last year – in which Romney first laid out his plan for dealing with Iran.
“Those ideas very much reflected his own thinking and his own research,” Neusner told JTA. “He was quite engaged in the production of that speech.”
Romney did draw some criticism from other GOP candidates after saying at a debate in October, in response to a question, that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons he would consult with his lawyers.
But that same month, Romney was talking tough at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s candidates’ forum in October. When it comes to the spread of terrorism, he said there, the Democrats “are in the most serious case of denial since Neville Chamberlain.”
“The real problem is that jihadists want to conquer the world,” Romney said.
He championed Israel’s security barrier, which the Palestinians oppose because it cuts through the West Bank.
“The security fence is keeping violence from overrunning the Holy Land,” Romney said.
At the forum, Romney voiced skepticism over the renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that ultimately were launched in Annapolis, Md., in November.
“How could you possibly have a peace conference at this stage?” he asked, noting that Hamas terrorists were now controlling the Gaza Strip. “Who would you talk to?”
Romney finished third in fund raising from RJC board members and in a favorability poll among Jewish Republicans, in both cases finishing behind Rudy Giuliani and John McCain.
Romney’s public relationship with his faith met with criticism and praise from Jews throughout the campaign.
In a Dec. 6, 2007 speech in College Park, Texas, Romney said that God “should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places.”
He added that he would “take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from the ‘God who gave us liberty.’ “
Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, praised Romney’s candor, but cautioned that he may have been using the forum to assure evangelicals that he shared their belief that Jesus is the son of God.
In a statement responding to the speech, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, said that “we agree that there is no place in our society for bigotry, and that one’s religion should never be a test for political office.”
Foxman went on to express concern that “it has become part of our political culture for candidates to be forced into asserting their religiosity.”
Romney’s Mormonism should not be an issue, says one of his Jewish backers, Michael Menis, an oral surgeon in Crystal Lake, Ill.
“Jews throughout history have been persecuted for their religious beliefs,” Menis recently told the Chicago Jewish News. “If any one religious group should be supportive of someone’s right to believe in what they wish and not be persecuted for it or excluded from political office for it, it should be the Jewish people.”
Menis, the chairman of the RJC’s Chicago chapter and a declared Romney delegate, cited the former governor’s competence as why he favored him.
“When he took the helm of the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, he turned an almost $400 million operating deficit into one of the most successful Olympics in history,” Menis told the Chicago Jewish News. He also praised Romney’s performance as a Republican governor in a Democratic state, where he “worked both sides of the aisle.”
Nancy Kaufman, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, said she worked extensively with Romney during his time as governor, particularly on services for seniors and faith-based assistance after Hurricane Katrina.
She also lobbied for Romney’s health-care plan, which provided assistance for low-income families but levied a tax penalty on those who did not get insurance.
“He’s backing away from that now, but it’s very important,” Kaufman said of the health-care plan.
On other areas, there were differences with Jewish groups. Romney tried to roll back his state’s historic approval of same-sex marriages and was not supportive of the JCRC’s plan to provide in-state tuition to legal and illegal immigrants.
Kaufman sounded a note of disappointment in how Romney appears to be tamping down his reputation as a consensus-building moderate as he appeals to Christian conservatives that make up a key segment of the Republican base.
“I haven’t heard him talk about working across faith groups,” Kaufman said. “I worked closely with him and his wife, and they were very appreciative of the role faith-based groups played. He valued the Jewish community and our input.”