Monday, February 11, 2008

McCain found a tool with which to woo conservative Republicans: Israel

by Shmuel Rosner, chief US correspondent for Haaretz

There's been a lot of talk lately about John McCain's problem with the more conservative (and religious) right wing of the Republican Party. In Super Tuesday McCain won among self-identified conservatives in only three of the nine states that were covered by the exit polls I looked at. His real strength is among moderates.

The dominant narrative for the rest of the Republican race could be McCain's uneasy relationship with the right, writes Michael Grunwald in Time. The candidate is making an effort to win over this important constituency: "I promise you," McCain assured conservatives in his victory speech, "if I am so fortunate to win your nomination, I will work hard to ensure that the conservative philosophy and principles of our great party ... will again win the votes of a majority of the American people."

The problem he has is clear: How does one win over the more radical wing of his party without alienating the more centrist voters on which one relies to help him win not just the nomination but also the general election. McCain is using a couple of tools as to try and achieve this goal. One of them, and not a marginal one, is the State of Israel.

Senator Joe Lieberman is playing a role here. The staunchest Jewish supporter McCain has, Lieberman can promise both Jews and Evangelical voters that McCain is the candidate who will not abandon Israel (no wonder some people still think Lieberman is McCain's top pick for Vice President).

Lieberman also says that McCain understands how significant the establishment of the state of Israel was. He is an avid reader of history and also has "a sense of history." He is familiar with the story of the country. He will not do anything that will "compromise Israel's security." Lieberman has real confidence in McCain, a "total comfort level" because "I know this man."

"In his potential outreach to evangelical Christians, Lieberman could trade on a relationship rooted in a shared concern for the safety of Israel, as well the respect many evangelicals have for Lieberman's Orthodox Jewish background and for his activism on values issues like violence in the media", wrote Jennifer Siegel of the Forward, and rightly so.

But who needs Lieberman when it is so clear that the candidate himself is using the Israel tool with his most problematic constituency? Two weeks ago I reported that "it is not only the Jews who McCain is courting" with gestures and statements concerning Israel:

Asked about his chances of winning the Republican nomination despite his poor relations with evangelical Christians, he noted that an influential segment of this community is very committed to Israel, and "obviously I have been a very strong proponent to the State of Israel."

And here is a statement he made earlier, in the summer: "The State of Israel has never needed your support and your hopes and your prayers they way they need it today," McCain said. "And God bless you for your commitment." The occasion: the annual Christians United for Israel Summit in Washington.

McCain's speech Thursday, at the Conservative Political Action Conference here in Washington, was designed to hammer this point home in an even more forceful way: "Those [Democratic] senators won't recognize and seriously address the threat posed by an Iran with nuclear ambitions to our ally Israel in the region", McCain said. Meaning: If you conservatives really care about Israel as you often say you do - I'm you're man. Here?s some more: "I intend to make unmistakably clear to Iran we will not permit a government that espouses the destruction of the State of Israel as its fondest wish and pledges undying enmity to the United States to possess the weapons to advance their malevolent ambitions".

His speech, wrote Stephen Hayes "was surprisingly well-received". After the speech, Hayes reports:

[Tom] DeLay told a few reporters that a speech at CPAC could not make up for McCain's record, but he would not rule out voting for him. That might not seem like a big deal unless we recall that DeLay had previously said that McCain "has done more to hurt the Republican Party than any elected official I know of." And he'd still consider voting for him?

DeLay is definitely one of those people to which a positive message concerning Israel is of great importance, and might help McCain do the trick.