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Rick Santorum.(Jay LaPrete/Getty Images)

Tonight will be the first Republican primary debate that actually feels novel and not exhausting because there have been 20 in the past two weeks. But like many of the other debates, the candidates enter it with perennial ultimate-frontrunner Mitt Romney desperately needing to fend off a pesky insurgent threatening to take the top spot from him. Rick Santorum, who very narrowly won the Iowa caucuses and then came away with wins in Missouri, Colorado, and Minnesota a couple weeks ago, is neck-and-neck with Romney for the Michigan primary next Tuesday (Romney was born in Michigan, and his father was governor), the most important contest before Super Tuesday in March. Santorum is leading Romney nationally. Santorum was at one point his party’s third-ranked senator; is telegenic and smart; and professes a blend of social and big-government conservatism that make him appealing to Catholics, evangelicals, and Reagan-Democrat types. He is for real.

The lazy assumption over the past several weeks has been that Santorum is not appealing to Jews—essentially some version of, “He is just like Romney and Newt Gingrich on Israel and Iran, but he is more socially conservative than they.” Gingrich patron Sheldon Adelson was rumored to be opposed to Santorum for his strongly antiabortion views, even as he pledged to back the eventual GOP nominee (excepting Ron Paul, who will be the fourth participant in tonight’s debate). But Santorum has his Jewish backers, too. JTA’s Ron Kampeas spoke to a couple.

“I am not a political pundit. I don’t know how Michigan is going,” said Alan B. Miller, chair and CEO of Universal Health Services, which is based in Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania, in an interview with Tablet Magazine yesterday. Miller is a prominent Jewish Republican donor who is backing Santorum. “But I know [Santorum] to be a man of character. He prides himself—if he gives you his word, it’s good. He’s the kind of a person who I think should be in a leadership position.”

Of Santorum’s hard-right positions and rhetoric on social issues—most notoriously, several years ago Santorum said that gay marriage could lead to bestiality—Miller argued: “he has never indicated any interest in pushing his ideas or making me or anybody else adhere to what he believes in, religiously or socially.” He added, “People have to grow up. They’re not gonna find anybody who’s perfect. With a person of character and integrity who’s led a fine life, an exemplary life, that’s a man they ought to consider very strongly.” (Taking his own advice, Miller pledged that he will support the eventual Republican nominee.)

While Republican Jewish Coalition head Matt Brooks acknowledged, in an interview with Kampeas, that Santorum could prove vulnerable on social issues like abortion and contraception (which he personally opposes), he argued that the 2012 election will be about the economy and foreign policy.

Over the weekend, prominent Romney backer Fred Zeidman insisted to Tablet Magazine that nominee Santorum would still be a better option than President Obama. “We have checks and balances in government, there’s a limited number of things even a Rick Santorum can actually do—that’s why we have Congress,” he said. “Keep your eyes focused on Israel, and you’ve gotta support Rick Santorum” if it is him versus Obama, he continued. “I won’t have any problems doing it.”

Zeidman added, “His social issues are certainly way to the right of mine. Unfortunately, if you look at the surveys and numbers they all point to the same thing, which is that Jewish vote for the most part considers Israel the number five item, and the reason for that is because they think everyone can take care of Israel. As far as I’m concerned, with Barack Obama, that’s not the case, which is why he’s not our guy.”

It’s not difficult to understand why Jewish Republicans appear to have gravitated more toward Romney. But one could argue that Santorum combines Gingrich’s familiarity with foreign policy (through time served in federal office) with Romney’s ability to sound hawkish notes that aren’t alienating. It’s certainly not difficult to make the case that he has a stronger character than Gingrich. And electoral college-wise, there is a compelling argument that Santorum would more likely put states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, and perhaps Wisconsin, Michigan, and even New Jersey, into play than Romney.

“I would also ask that my co-religionists take this election very seriously and not be persuaded by things that people want to tell them that they want to hear,” Miller said. “They ought to think very seriously about that, about how the Israelis think about the current administration, which is telling the world and the Jews that they should not talk about Iran because the price of oil is going to go up and that will be bad for the world.”

“I will vote for the Republican nominee without question,” Miller added. “I am hopeful that it will be Santorum.”

Gingrich’s Main Backer Plays Two Angles [WSJ]
Shrugging Santorum Has Jewish GOPers Shrugging, Shvitzing and Kvelling [JTA]





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