ST. PAUL (JTA) – Joe Lieberman, another Jewish senator and a rabbi played lead roles in praising John McCain at the Republican National Convention here Tuesday night.
U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), a former mayor of St. Paul and one of only two Jewish Republicans in the Senate, welcomed delegates to the first full day of the convention at the Xcel Energy Center. And Rabbi Ira Flax, a retired Air Force chaplain now living in Birmingham, Ala., delivered the benediction.
But Lieberman’s was the most anticipated speech, given that just eight years ago he was the Democratic Party’s vice presidential candidate.
While politicians and pundits have been debating his ability to convince Jewish voters to back McCain, Lieberman’s speech was aimed more generally at Democrats and independents. The same could be said of Coleman and Flax, whose comments in no way appeared to be aimed specifically at Jews.
“You may not agree with John McCain on every issue,” Lieberman said Tuesday, “but you can always count on him to be straight with you about where he stands, and to stand for what he thinks is right for our country regardless of the politics.
“I can tell you with a certain faith that as president, you can count on John McCain to be what he is naturally – a restless reformer who will clean up Washington and get our government working again for all of the American people.”
Lieberman, the first Jewish candidate on a national ticket when Al Gore picked him as a running mate in 2000, became an independent in 2006 after he lost in the Democratic primary in Connecticut. He continues to caucus with Senate Democrats, providing them with their ruling majority, but last year endorsed McCain.
Coleman, welcoming the GOP convention to his home state, managed to get Jews, pigs and St. Paul into the first three sentences of his speech.
“Good evening and welcome to Pig’s Eye, Minn.,” he said. “That’s right, we were called Pig’s Eye until a Catholic priest built a wooden chapel a few steps from here dedicated to St. Paul.
“Although I am a person of the Jewish faith, I often reference St. Paul. And as former mayor of this city that was named for him, I proudly welcome you to my city of St. Paul.”
Coleman said that McCain was the candidate for “people who demand government reform, to folks who need jobs, to families who deserve to keep more of their own money by keeping taxes low, and to those around the world who yearn for freedom.”
In his benediction, Flax quoted the Book of Proverbs, saluted the military and endorsed McCain. He began by noting that “the song ‘God Bless America’ was introduced to this country 70 years ago, and in those seven decades, Lord you have indeed blessed us in so many ways.”
Flax continued, “We are here in this hall this evening safe and secure because there are men and women willing to serve others, [and] they are standing guard against the enemies of freedom and ready to respond to the natural calamities that beset our lot from time to time. We ask you, God, to bless their efforts, bless their families, and bless us, too.”
Hurricane Gustav had effectively wiped out the first scheduled day of events at the convention on Monday. Republicans urged convention-goers to give blood and money to its victims.
Flax also paid tribute to those suffering through Gustav.
“As our fellow citizens on the Gulf Coast emerge from the dark night of storm clouds and rain, may the light of God’s face shine upon them and bless them with peace,” the rabbi said.
Finally, he quoted from Proverbs (29:18) in both Hebrew and English.
“‘B’eyn chazon yipareh am,’ where there is no vision, the people perish,” he said. “In every age God, you have provided people of vision to act decisively in moments of great adversity. Bless this land with prosperity, bless our people with health and our leaders with vision, and God bless John McCain, the next president of the United States.”
President Bush addressed the convention by satellite from the White House, ostensibly because he had to manage hurricane response. The McCain campaign has tried to distance itself from the most unpopular president in polling history, and Bush spoke for just eight minutes.
He included a veiled reassurance to the party’s base that McCain could be counted on when it comes to opposing abortion.
Speaking of the McCains’ adopted child, Bush said: “John is a leader who knows that human life is fragile, that human life is precious, that human life must be defended.”
Commentators noted the many empty seats in the arena Tuesday night, but they predicted the venue would be full Wednesday for Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain’s pick for vice president.
Sources familiar with the convention proceedings told JTA to expect plenty of pro-Israel material in Palin’s remarks.