WASHINGTON (JTA) — For all the talk among pundits of Mitt Romney’s charisma problem, Romney’s Jewish supporters say what’s most inspiring about the Republican presidential candidate is that he actually does rather than just talk.
Furthermore, the very characteristics that cost the former Massachusetts governor his 2008 presidential bid and dogged his re-entry into the ’12 race are what have made Romney the front-runner among Jewish Republican givers, notably his readiness to compromise in order to seal a deal.
"He’s got a lot of common sense, he’s got a success pattern in his life," Mel Sembler, one of Romney’s principal Jewish backers, told JTA on Tuesday after accompanying him on a fundraising swing in Florida that netted the campaign $1.8 million.
"I like a man who’s been in business for 25 years, who’s made a payroll and who understands what the real world is like,” Sembler said.
It’s no coincidence that Romney’s Jewish backers come out of the business community, say those who know him. Unlike much of the 2012 crop of GOP candidates, who appeal to the party’s Tea Party insurgency with a language of no compromise, Romney knows how to close a deal with allies and rivals alike.
Nancy Kaufman, who directed the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston when Romney was governor from 2003 to 2007, said his willingness to work with Democrats in the state Legislature was critical to passing health care reform in Massachusetts.
"No matter how hard he tries to distance himself, now health care in Massachusetts is a model for the country," said Kaufman, who now guides the National Council of Jewish Women. "We were all surprised by his leadership. It wasn’t what we expected."
Republican rivals have slammed Romney for helping to shape a Massachusetts policy that goes further than the policy that President Obama signed off on in subsidizing care. Romney has said that he opposes Obama’s national health care reforms mainly because they override the authorities of states to form their own policies.
The National Jewish Democratic Council recently called Romney the "ultimate political chameleon" for what the council said were his efforts to distance himself from the health care policy of Massachusetts.
Romney’s campaign told JTA that he is too busy now for an interview.
Romney, the son of former Michigan Gov. George Romney, who also ran for president in 1968, has made his business acumen a central plank of his appeal to Jewish backers. In his inaugural "Jewish" speech in his last run, to an audience of Yeshiva University donors in April 2007, he cast his career successes as a buyout czar as a matter of "chutzpah."
"I spent most of my life in the private sector, first by consulting the major corporations, and then by starting and acquiring companies," he said. "It takes chutzpah, I believe, to buy a company from somebody else, someone who knows the business inside out, someone who has decided that now is the best time to sell, someone who has hired an investment banker to hawk it to everybody in the world, and then to think that you — having paid more than anyone else in the entire world — you somehow think you are going to make a profit on your investment."
He added, "What we did is done every day by you in the private sector."
It’s an approach that helped Romney win what Matt Brooks, who directs the Republican Jewish Coalition, calls the "fundraiser primary": the race to raise cash.
"They see him as a real leader on the economic stuff," Brooks said of Romney’s supporters.
In addition to Sembler, a shopping center developer, Romney has the backing of other prominent Jews, including investment manager Lew Eisenberg, investor Sam Fox and lobbyist Wayne Berman.
Another emphasis for Romney in his appeal to Jewish backers is the shared experience of being in a religious minority. Romney, 64, is a Mormon.
"Mitt and I can appreciate coming from another heritage," his wife, Ann, told the Republican Jewish Coalition in April.
Romney is much more focused this time around, Brooks says, with a campaign intent on taking on Obama and not trading potshots with his rivals.
"One of the reasons candidates do better historically is they learn the lessons from the past," Brooks said. "They’re doing things very differently, they’re being much more strategic and much more focused than in 2008, much leaner, not being everywhere all over the place and overexposed."
Romney refused to criticize his party rivals in his first GOP debate, although polls of Republicans show him virtually tied with Michele Bachmann, a Tea Party favorite. He makes a point of saying that Obama did not inherit the financial crisis, although he charges him with making it worse. At an RJC event in April, Romney pointedly refused to make an issue of Obama’s birth.
It’s an approach that some Republicans privately deride as "gentlemanly."
Romney’s backers say he seems more comfortable in his skin this time, extemporizing more and making jokes at his own expense. Sometimes he tries a little too hard — at the RJC event in Las Vegas, he made a point of saying that he’s a country music fan.
Kaufman says she’s still not sure where Romney stands on abortion rights, which NCJW backs. As a candidate for governor in 2002, Romney famously appeared wounded when his rival challenged his pledge not to interfere with a woman’s right to choose. Now he calls himself "pro-life" and supports cutting funds to Planned Parenthood, although he will not sign on to a broader pledge to cut funding to hospitals that provide abortions.
While Romney has been a more moderate critic of the Obama administration than some of his rivals, he has come out swinging forcefully on Israel and Middle East issues.
In May he accused Obama of "throwing Israel under the bus" after the president called for Israel to hold talks with the Palestinians based on 1967 lines, with land swaps. And at the Las Vegas RJC event, Romney accused Obama of not being tough enough on Iran and not following through with the threat of crippling sanctions.
"The consequence of not understanding negotiations has been extraordinarily difficult,” Romney said.
It’s a posture that pleased Sembler, who pointed out that he accompanied Romney on his first official Israel visit, in 2007.
"His position on Israel is going to be excellent," said Sembler, who noted the success of another governor he had accompanied to the Jewish state, in 1998: George W. Bush.