Each of the 2016 White House hopefuls made their case to the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Presidential Forum on Thursday why they’d be the strongest defender of America’s and Israel’s national security against the kind of violence seen in San Bernardino, Calif., Wednesday.
Nearly all of the candidates — Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was detained by Senate votes and never made it — argued that the incident was an example of the terrorist threat facing America and Israel and proceeded to attack President Barack Obama for not readily using the term “radical Islamic terrorism.”
Speaking before influential Washington Jewish Republicans, some of them heavy-hitting donors, the candidates competed to be the staunchest supporter of Israel and the biggest opponents of the Iran deal.
But also playing out on stage was a battle to define the Republican party and its future, with Sen. Lindsey Graham delivering a strong rebuke of what he called the “hateful rhetoric” that he said will doom the GOP.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz: Cruz began with a moment of silence for the victims of the shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., before linking the incident to recent terrorist attacks.
“All of us are deeply concerned that this is yet another manifestation of terrorism — radical Islamic terrorism here at home,” Cruz said.
After the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, he continued, the California shooting “underscores that we are in a time of war.”
Cruz made defeating “Islamic terrorism” the central point of his aggressive foreign policy speech at Thursday’s forum, the only event, besides sanctioned debates, where all of the GOP presidential hopefuls are set to appear.
Making his case for why he’d be the strongest president on national security, Cruz attacked President Barack Obama, saying that he has sometimes acted as “an apologist for radical Islamic terrorists.”
“When Obama says the Islamic State isn’t Islamic, that’s just nutty,” Cruz said to applause.
“Calling the enemy by its name,” Cruz said, is the first step to keeping America safe. Just as important, Cruz argued, is allegiance to American allies.
“We need a president who will utterly destroy ISIS,” Cruz said, not just one who will “weaken them.”
“History has not been kind to those who have facilitated the gathering storm of homicidal maniacs who tell us they want to kill us,” Cruz said, comparing Obama to Neville Chamberlain in 1938.
Saying he couldn’t wait to stand on a debate stage with Hillary Clinton, Cruz tried tying Obama’s foreign policy to the presumptive Democratic nominee. “If you vote for Hillary, you are voting for the Ayatollah Khamenei to have nuclear weapons,” he added.
Cruz promised to “tear to shreds” the Iran deal if he were elected president.
Responding to an audience question about how he would more qualified than Obama to be president when Obama, too, was just a first-term senator when he was elected, Cruz suggested that he alone among Republican candidates was capable of being elected because he could bring evangelical Christians back into the fold.
If the party nominates another nominee such as John McCain, Bob Dole or Mitt Romney, he said, “millions of voters will stay home.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham: In a strong rebuke of Cruz’s address, Graham argued that only a Republican like himself can win in 2016.
He came to the forum, he said, to talk about foreign policy, but after hearing Cruz’s pitch to the Jewish Republican audience, the South Carolina senator said he had to first talk about how the party can win elections.
“It’s not about turning out evangelical Christians, it’s about repairing the damage done by incredibly hateful rhetoric,” Graham said. “I believe Donald Trump is destroying Republicans’ chance to win an election that we cannot afford to lose,” he added.
But it was clear that he thinks Cruz is just as much a danger to the party’s electoral success.
He blamed 2012 nominee Mitt Romney’s comments about self-deportation for alienating Hispanic voters, but the rhetoric this year, Graham argued, is even more harmful.
“Now it’s not self-deportation, it’s forced deportation. We’re literally going to round them up. That sound familiar to you?”
Rhetoric of that sort, Graham said, “will undercut everything you’ve worked for.”
Focusing on social issues and illegal immigration, he argued, will push the party toward “oblivion.”
He slammed Cruz for not supporting an exception for rape and incest in his opposition to abortion, saying that if the eventual nominee doesn’t have such an exception, the party cannot win.
Eventually getting to foreign policy, Graham promised to negotiate a better Iran deal and touted his foreign policy experience.
“I understand why this is a bad deal. But I have the credibility in the region to get you a better deal.”
He pleaded with the audience to give him a chance.
“P ut me in the ring with her,” he said of Clinton. “Give me a chance. I’ll win.”
Sen. Marco Rubio: The Florida senator addressed the crowd in more measured tones than his fellow first-term senator who opened the event.
Like Cruz, Rubio promised to be Israel’s strongest defender, and invoked a civilizational struggle — what he called a “showdown between the West and Islam.”
But he referred to “radical Islamic terrorism” less often than Cruz, attempting to define it in more precise terms.
“Israel stands on the front lines of our civilizational struggle against radical, apocalyptic Islam,” Rubio said. “That term, Apocalyptic Islam, is not an attempt at being provocative; it is rather a description of the true beliefs of the leaders of both Iran and the Islamic State: that they are living in the end times and that mass genocide is their way to honor God.”
Rubio peppered his speech with many more references to anti-Semitism than to radical Islamic terrorism.
Despite stumbling over Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’ name — he reversed his first and last names — Rubio made an effort showcase foreign policy chops. And like Cruz, Rubio promised to move the American embassy to Jerusalem and to tear to “shreds” the Iran deal negotiated by the Obama administration.
Former N.Y. Gov. George Pataki: Pataki also began his remarks with a nod toward Wednesday’s shootings.
In light of recent terrorist attacks, he said, America must “shut down” the domestic threat from “radical Islamics.” He spoke of routing out radicalized populations in American community centers and mosques. “Radicalization,” Pataki said, “is not protected speech.”
Inveighing against the BDS movement, which every candidate so far has also criticized, he called an “anti-Semitic movement.” Pataki, too, promised to do away with the Iran deal.
Weighing in on the party’s existential debate, Pataki argued that he’d be the best Republican nominee because he got elected in a Democratic state and has executive experience.
Donald Trump: In his typical unscripted style, Trump pronounced that he’s done more for Israel than any other candidate.
His first example? Serving as the grand marshall of 2004’s Celebrate Israel parade in New York City.
Hillary Clinton, Trump said, has neither the “strength” nor the “energy” to defend Israel.
The Republican frontrunner tried to parlay a closeness with the audience, at several points alluding to the common business backgrounds they share.
The difference between him and other candidates, Trump said, is that he doesn’t need the Republican Jewish Coalition’s money.
“I’m the one candidate who doesn’t want your money,” Trump told the audience. “I want your support.” He chided the audience, saying he knew he wasn’t going to get their support because he’s not after the money.
Broaching foreign policy, Trump, too, suggested a probable connection between Wednesday’s shooting and “radical Islamic terrorism” and attacked Obama for not wanting to identify terrorism by that name.
“W e have a president who refuses to use the term. Something’s going on with him that we don’t know about,” Trump said.
Trump promised to renegotiate the Iran deal and said that if elected, America’s prisoners in Iran would return home before he even took office.
Pointing to a new PPP poll showing his continued lead in New Hampshire, Trump said he’d be the best nominee because of his background of “winning” as well as of working with members of the other party.
“I get along with everybody. I live in Manhattan. It’s virtually all Democrats,” he told the crowd.
Ben Carson: The retired pediatric neurosurgeon spoke between Trump and a lunch break and was the only candidate not to mention the San Bernardino shootings.
Perhaps trying to display a more commanding handle on foreign policy after his advisers called into question his knowledge , Carson read from prepared remarks laden with historical names and dates.
Carson said he prefers to speak off the cuff, but because he didn’t want to miss any points, he made an exception for this event.
Carson rarely raised his head to make eye contact with the audience, and at several points was so immersed in his text that he rushed through the pronunciation of Hamas so that it sounded more like “hummus.”
After spending the Thanksgiving weekend in Jordan, Carson reiterated his position that the U.S. should not accept Syrian refugees. Instead, he said, “the answer is create safe havens for the refugees in Syria and ensure their protection.”
For many of the candidates, Thursday’s forum was an opportunity to paint America’s foreign policy challenges as a “clash of civilizations.” Carson played up that narrative, saying that Judeo-Christian values “are what define us.” Making his pitch to the Jewish audience, Carson said that there are “two candles” in the “darkness”: the U.S. and Israel.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich: Drawing a contrast with the candidates who preceded him, Kasich pointed to his executive experience to sell the crowd on his candidacy.
“Now if guess if you’re inexperienced, you say you’re going to blow the place up,” Kasich said, alluding to the tone some of his fellow candidates struck on Iran. “I don’t have to go and use that kind of fiery rhetoric,” he said.
“You don’t learn on the job; you’ve got to have dealt with these things to be as effective as you can be,” Kasich said saying that his years as a governor make him uniquely prepared to assume the presidency.
He too alluded to a civilizational struggle defining America’s foreign policy challenges. “This is an effort to destroy our very way of life,” he said of terrorism. “America and the West are founded on respect for life,” he said, promising to rebuild the American military and slamming the Iran deal as “ridiculous.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee: A frequent visitor to Israel, Huckabee gave the Christian Zionist pitch. He suggested that both the U.S. and Israel have been touched “by the providence of God.”
“There is no country that more mirrors who we are as Americans,” he said. “Radical Islamic jihadism wants to kill all of us, starting with Israel.”
He called the Iran agreement “a terrible deal for world peace,” and lamented that Israel has for too long been asked to make concessions.
“Israel has given up, given up, given up! And gotten nothing in return,” Huckabee said, his voicing rising with each refrain and the audience started applauding.
At the end of his speech, Huckabee, as a former southern governor, was asked about his thoughts on race relations.
“I’m an American first and I was proud to see that our country had moved past judging people by the color of our skin,” he said of Obama’s election as the first African-American president in 2008. But he said he has been disappointed by “the divisive attitude, the likes of which we’ve never seen before,” that he thinks Obama has brought to the office.
And how, other members of the audience wanted to know, would Huckabee convince Jewish voters for whom abortion rights and same-sex marriage are the most important issues, to vote for him?
“I probably wouldn’t,” he said.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie: “I don’t need to be taught these things,” Christie told the crowd, arguing that his professional and personal experience with terrorism makes him the most prepared to be president.
In a serious, and somewhat emotional speech, Christie recounted in detail his family’s experience on Sept. 11, 2001, including his own uncertainty throughout that day that his wife, Mary Pat, had survived the attacks on lower Manhattan, where she worked.
“This entire campaign changed a few weeks ago,” Christie said, referencing the November terror attacks in Paris, but he alone, he said, has been making national security the predominant issue.
“We need to come to grips with the fact that we are in the midst of the next world war,” Christie said, pointing out that as a former attorney general, he knew right away that Wednesday’s shooting was a terrorist attack.
“The fact is that America today is weaker and less prepared to protect our citizens than we were seven years ago,” he said. “I’d like to blame all of this on Barack Obama, but we’ve had Republicans complicit in this as well,” he said, implicitly knocking Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul for supporting the expiration of the NSA’s metadata collection program earlier this week.
Asked about his position on social issues, Christie said, “It’s easy to be pro-life when they’re in the womb.” The hard part, he said, is being pro-life for someone’s entire life, pivoting to the support for drug addiction assistance that earned him approbation earlier this year.
Responding to another question, Christie criticized Clinton for not using the terms, “radical Islam,” but he adopted a somewhat softer tone than other candidates and even he has used in the days since the Paris attacks. He did not repeat his refusal to admit Syrian refugees — even toddlers — into New Jersey, instead telling the crowd that he appointed a Muslim judge in New Jersey.
“Any time we use language that generalizes or is caustic, we diminish ourselves,” he said.
Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore: In the most bizarre introduction, Gilmore said he’d been told he was coming for the “kishka” test, and admitted he hadn’t known what that was. He went on to define the Yiddish word, which, in political correct terms, translates to guts.
Acknowledging that his trajectory is perhaps less well known, Gilmore told the audience he’d been an Army intelligence officer overseas during the Cold War. The crowd responded with measured applause, to which he responded, “There aren’t but two veterans in the race!”
“I may be excluded and I may be an outsider, but I am not an amateur,” Gilmore said. “This is no time to put an amateur in the White House.”
Pointing out that he was governor during 9/11, Gilmore called himself a “wartime governor” who would build up America’s intelligence community.
He attempted to solidify his connection with the Jewish experience by telling the audience that he watched “Schindler’s List” last night.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush: The one-time front-runner asked the crowd, “Who has the right stuff?” That was the question of the day.
But he went on to ask, ‘Who has a heart for people?” and that’s where he sought to distinguish himself.
“The next president better have a servant’s heart rather than trying to push people down,” he said.
At the same time, Bush spoke forcefully and confidently, saying, “I think you’re looking at the next Republican nominee. Should I win this nomination, I will take it to Hillary Clinton, and I will whup her.”
Bush reiterated his support for a no-fly zone and a safe zone in Syria. Like most every other candidate Thursday, he said he’d move the American embassy to Jerusalem.
“The brutal savagery of Islamic terrorism exists,” he said, knocking the president and Secretary of State John Kerry for not identifying it as such. “They have declared war on us, and we need to declare war on them,” he added.
The only candidate to bring up the upcoming Hanukkah holiday, Bush said his affinity for Israel has been long-standing. “I’ve been engaged in the fight long before being a candidate,” he said, repeating how he purchased Israeli bonds and brought to the attention of his father, former president George H.W. Bush, “the plight of Ethiopian Jews.”
Deflecting questions about the tutelage of former Secretary of State Jim Baker, he said that the person he relies on the most for advice about U.S.-Israeli policy is his brother, former president George W. Bush.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum: The former Pennsylvania senator told the audience that he was featured in ISIS’s magazine. With that, and what he said was his mastery of foreign policy issues, he argued that he’s been fighting the terrorist threat longer than his competitors.
Back in 2006, Santorum said, he did what every other candidate is now trying to do: “name the enemy.”
“We treat them as neither Islamic nor a state,” Santorum said, criticizing the administration’s rhetoric on ISIS.
He spoke aggressively against settling more Syrian refugees in the U.S. “We have nothing to apologize for,” he said. “The president makes you feel bad for not taking refugees, but he’s created the refugee problem,” he added.
Trailing in the polls, Santorum addressed his electability head-on. Polls in Iowa, the 2012 Iowa caucus winner said, are nothing more than “shadows and allusions.” As one of several blue-state Republicans running, he argued that he’s the only one who carried his state as a conservative, even winning Pennsylvania when Bush did not.
Carly Fiorina: The last candidate to take the stage around 5 p.m., the former H-P CEO thanked the crowd for sticking around to hear her speak.
“In your heart of hearts, you cannot wait to see me debate Hillary Clinton,” Fiorina said to applause.
Asked about the GOP being accused of waging a war on women, Fiorina said she’s the candidate to defeat Clinton because she’d force her to run on her record rather than on being the first female president.
Responding to Wednesday’s shooting in California, Fiorina criticized Clinton for using the event to “tweet about gun control.”
She continued to address the presumptive Democratic nominee, saying, “No, Mrs. Clinton, climate change is not our most pressing national security challenge. ISIS is, followed by Iran.”
Trying to stake out her credibility as a friend of Israel, Fiorina repeatedly called it an “exceptional” nation and said her first phone call as president would be to Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu. Her second phone call, she said, would be to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani demanding a new deal.
“Having been in the world,” Fiorina said, is a better qualification for becoming president than having read a briefing book, and she repeatedly told the crowd that she has held the highest security clearances available to civilians. She also called for a collaboration between public and private networks on cyber security.
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