When Mitt Romney touches down in Tel Aviv tomorrow evening, he’ll have one eye cast toward Miami, Florida.
The Republican presidential candidate will arrive in Israel as escalating violence in Syria is prompting a strategic reassessment of the region. Yet, for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, the stop has more to do with domestic politics than international anxieties.
“Israel is basically another campaign stop, just like New Hampshire, Iowa or Florida,” said Mitchell Barak, an American-born, Jerusalem-based political consultant. “It’s voters, it’s money, it’s almost like a hechsher, a Kosher stamp of approval.”
While Jewish voters overwhelmingly backed President Barack Obama four years ago, support for him among them has softened, according to some polls, amid concerns that the administration is being too tough on Israel and reports of a tense relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Exit polls in 2008 found that Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote. A Gallup poll released in June showed his support from Jewish voters at 64 percent and Romney at 29 percent. The survey was conducted from April 11-June 5 and had an error margin was plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Republicans don’t expect to win the community outright in November. Rather, they see an opportunity to gain enough Jewish Democrats and independents to change the outcome in a few swing states.
A 10 percent loss of Jewish Democrats could shift vote margins in Romney’s favor by 98,000 in Florida, 35,000 in Pennsylvania, 18,000 in Ohio and 8,500 in Nevada, according to the National Jewish Democratic Council, a Washington-based organization.
Jessica Morris, a 20-year-old University of Miami student studying public relations and languages, is a coming-of-age voter and represents the Romney campaign targets.
She said the candidates’ policies toward Israel are “very, very high” on her list of issues she considers when voting.
Morris said Romney’s trip to Israel “makes me happy he’s being so upfront about it. Romney is less about pleasing the masses and putting on a good face,” she said in an interview. “I feel like Obama and the Democrats appeal too much to the masses. Their backbone won’t exist when facing 22 Muslim states.”
In recent weeks, top Jewish Republican leaders have embarked on new efforts to win voters both at home and Israel.
A group backed by Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who is supporting Romney, announced this week plans for a multi-million dollar ad campaign featuring voters who regret backing Obama because of his position toward Israel.
At the same time, Republicans are working to register the 150,000 eligible Americans living in Israel, particularly those from swing states. Exit polls show American Jews residing in Israel voted three-to-one Republican four years ago, according to data collected by Republicans Abroad Israel, a Jerusalem-based organization.
Leaders of Democratic-leaning Jewish groups rejected the idea that Romney could defeat Obama by winning more Jewish voters. Obama would have to see a dramatic collapse in support from the community for that shift to influence a state outcome, said Jim Gerstein, a polling specialist who surveys Jewish voters for J Street, a Washington-based lobbying group that favors Democratic candidates.
“This is going to be a close election,” he said, “but this race will not swing on the Jewish vote.”
Romney’s visit will thrust a relative foreign policy novice into the midst of one of the world’s most politicized conflicts.
The former Massachusetts governor plans to meet with top Israeli and Palestinian leaders, deliver a speech on the Middle East, and collect checks from American donors invited by his campaign to attend a fundraiser in a Jerusalem hotel. The campaign plans to check passports at the door to ensure only U.S. citizens participate. It’s illegal for foreign nationals to donate to candidates.
In a July 24 speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, Romney denounced Obama’s treatment of Israel as “shabby,” and argued that the president has undermined that nation’s position in the Middle East conflict.
Obama today signed the United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act in the Oval Office, with news photographers invited to capture the event. The legislation, passed by Congress last week, expands strategic cooperation between the U.S. and Israel.
The signing ceremony is part of a recent effort by the White House to shower Israel with attention ahead of Romney’s visit. In the past two weeks, Obama has sent Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and advisers John Brennan and Thomas Donilon on separate visits to the country.
Romney in his VFW speech also attacked Obama’s handling of Iran, vowing to order a regular presence of aircraft carriers in the Eastern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf regions to “make clear that the military option is on the table.”
That’s left him open to questions about whether he would authorize U.S. military action against Iran at a time when Americans are tired of more than decade-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Frankly, all we’ve gotten from Romney up to this point is tough talk,” Colin Kahl, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, told reporters on an Obama campaign conference call. “If Romney thinks it’s time to use military action against Iran and abandon the diplomacy prematurely, then I think he owes it to the American people to actually say so.”
In an interview published today with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Romney -- who previously has called Russia America’s “number-one geopolitical foe” -- said Iran is the biggest threat to the world.
The issue of a nuclear Iran will be the top concern for Netanyahu when he meets Romney for a private dinner during the trip, according to campaign donors involved with the planning of the Israel trip.
In a June 22 interview on CBS, Netanyahu said he would tell Romney “pretty much the same things” he told Obama when the then-Democratic presidential candidate visited in July 2008.
Campaign aides have emphasized Romney’s long relationship with the Israeli leader, dating back to their time working together at Boston Consulting Group in the 1970s, as a way of building support among American Jews.
Romney, in the Haaretz interview, reiterated his high regard for Netanyahu.
Though Netanyahu is unlikely to publicly back Romney, he’s known to have a chilly relationship with the Obama administration.
During the president’s first year in office, the White House insisted on a freeze of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, angering the Israelis. Obama hasn’t visited the country since winning the 2008 election, though aides say he plans to go if he wins a second term.
“Netanyahu would clearly be much more comfortable with a Romney presidency,” said Aaron David Miller, a former adviser to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state. “And the Republicans see a legitimate advantage here by portraying Romney as someone who intuitively gets the Israelis.”