JERUSALEM — Even before Mitt Romney arrives in Israel, he has friends here.
During a recent series of debates pitting representatives of the Republican and Democratic parties against each other, the audience cheered as heartily for the Republican Party representative as it booed mentions of President Barack Obama.
“The crowd was predominantly Republican, which is natural for Anglos in Israel,” said David Brinn, a moderator at one of the debates and managing editor of the Jerusalem Post, using the Israeli term for English speakers.
While Jewish Americans poll heavily toward the Democratic Party – Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008 – Americans living in Israel skew just as heavily toward the Republican Party. That base of support is preparing a warm welcome for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who arrives in Israel Saturday night on the second leg of a three-country campaign trip abroad. His first stop was London; his last will be in Warsaw, Poland.
“Everyone here is very excited about his visit,” said Marc Zell, the co-chairman of Republicans Abroad in Israel. “When it comes to protecting American interests and the interests of the Israeli people and of the Jewish people, the Republican Party has been a stalwart and loyal friend to Israel and the Jewish people for the past several administrations. That is something we want to bring home to the Jewish voters of the United States.”
Zell and his fellow co-chairman, Kory Bardash, argued that Americans who will vote from Israel this year overwhelmingly vote Republican because they place Israel near the top of their lists of issues for presidential hopefuls.
“The Republican Party has made it clear that they will safeguard Israel’s interests,” said Zell. “If you look at it just based on that issue it seems clear that the Republican Party will be better for Israel.”
Romney’s campaign hopes his visit will help register some of the 150,000 eligible U.S. citizens in Israel to vote, particularly if they cast absentee ballots in swing states.
His organization also hopes that placing a focus on the Republican support of Israel will pull in crucial votes in swing states with high Jewish populations, such as Florida. During Romney’s visit this weekend, he’ll highlight his close, decades-long friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as his strong support of Israel’s stand against Iran’s nuclear program.
But translating the support of Americans living in Israel to Jewish Americans in the United States has proved elusive for Republican campaigners.
In the United States this week, the Republican Jewish Coalition launched a $6.5 million ad campaign in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania titled “My Buyer’s Remorse.” It featured Jewish Americans who voted for Obama in 2008, but who will be voting Republican in the upcoming elections. The campaign, which was largely funded by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, is being supported by a Website and other outreach efforts.
“I think it will speak to many Jewish American voters because it highlights the doubts we have about Obama,” said John Gallagher, a 27-year-old American student visiting Israel from New York this week. He said that as a regular visitor to Israel and a strong supporter of Israeli causes, he felt his vote would be better placed with Romney then Obama. “Maybe some of my friends who don’t think about Israel as much don’t think the same way.”
According to Democratic pollster Jim Gerstein, few voters place Israel as high on their list of issues as Gallagher. Citing Gallup and Pew polls, Gerstein said that Israel didn’t rank in the top 10 of issues voters considered on Election Day – even among Jewish voters. He argued that all signs pointed to a Jewish American voting base that was strongly entrenched in the Democratic Party.
“Even with the slight lessening of support for Obama, and we are talking about a couple of points, I don’t see it making a real difference,” said Gerstein.
Obama, meanwhile, also has campaigned heavily for the Jewish vote.
On Friday morning, Obama with considerable fanfare was photographed in the Oval Office signing the United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act. The law gives Israel $70 million in military support and significantly expands cooperation between the U.S. and Israeli militaries. Just days before Romney’s visit, it successfully stole headlines in Israel away from the Republican’s planned trip and fundraiser.
The White House rejected suggestions that the signing – the day before Romney arrives in Israel – was politically motivated. Press Secretary Jay Carney said Congress passed the bill earlier this month and sent it to Obama for signing last week. His first opportunity to sign the measure was Friday, Carney said, as he’d been out of town all week.
"The timing of the passage and the signing of this legislation was not up to us, but up to Congress," Carney said. "I understand the coincidence. But the fact is our cooperation with Israel on its security is a subject we could discuss every day."
Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed from Washington.
Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent