LAS VEGAS — Long before voters begin paying attention to the 2016 presidential contest, the quiet race for the Republican Party's most elite donors was well under way in recent days as potential candidates made a pilgrimage west to court prolific spender Sheldon Adelson and other members of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
During speeches Saturday, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie all addressed the key concerns of Adelson and many group members — the threat of a nuclear Iran, their desire to strengthen U.S. ties with Israel, and what they view as the waning prestige of the U.S. abroad. With varying degrees of deftness, the candidates each touched on their own ties to Israel and Jewish tradition.
For Christie, Saturday's tryout showed the potential for missteps when governors wade into foreign policy at this early stage. During an otherwise warmly received speech, Christie's mention of a helicopter flight over "occupied territories" — terminology used by Israel's critics — during his trip to Israel sent murmurs and whispers of surprise through the conservative audience.
But the more important groundwork for the crop of potential candidates took place outside the three-day, 400-person conference — in one-on-one meetings with Adelson, who poured nearly $100 million into the 2012 campaign, as well as other influential coalition members.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is being encouraged to run by many Republican donors, headlined a private VIP reception and dinner in Adelson's airplane hangar Thursday night, where he made the case for immigration reform and demurred on questions about his presidential plans. The top billing for Bush at the more intimate event was an early signal of Adelson's leanings at a time when no clear leader has emerged for the 2016 GOP nomination.
No thoughtful candidate would discount Adelson's power as friend or foe after he demonstrated during the 2012 primary season how one GOP donor could scramble the Republican field. Adelson and his wife, Miriam, almost single-handedly kept the candidacy of Newt Gingrich alive — to the detriment of eventual nominee Mitt Romney — by pumping millions into a "super PAC" supporting him.
The conference of the conservative advocacy group took place in the opulent surroundings of Adelson's Venetian Resort and Casino with a Friday afternoon poker tournament, a Shabbat dinner featuring Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, and a late-evening Scotch tasting. Former Vice President Dick Cheney headlined Saturday's dinner, which was closed to the media.
For Christie, Walker and Kasich, the speeches Saturday were an early chance to frame foreign policy arguments, but they all spoke in broad strokes — giving little insight into possible distinctions among them.
Christie argued that the Obama administration was being mocked around the world.
"We cannot have a world where our friends are unsure of whether we will be with them and our enemies are unsure of whether we will be against them," Christie said, as he used the example to tout his own blunt personality: "In New Jersey, no one has to wonder whether I'm for them or against them. There's never really a cloud of indecision around what I say and what I do."
Walker, who said that one of his most important jobs had been being the "commander in chief of the Wisconsin National Guard," expressed concern about the decline in the number of U.S. troops in Europe compared to the Cold War period.
"If people around the world don't believe that we are strong, they will take action," Walker said.
The candidates' attempts to connect with the audience appeared awkward at times. Walker emphasized that he decorates his house during the holidays with Christmas lights as well as a menorah candle. He also noted that his son's name, Matthew, means "gift from god" in Hebrew.
Kasich, who had been sitting next to Adelson at the Saturday luncheon, addressed him by name repeatedly throughout his post-meal remarks, as if the conversation was one-on-one.
He also reminisced about his push to build a Holocaust memorial on the grounds of the Ohio Statehouse.
"I want people to know about courage, and principle, and about the Jewish faith and the Jewish people so that it will never happen again," he said to applause.
Christie, who has struggled to regain his footing since the George Washington Bridge scandal broke in New Jersey earlier this year, received the warmest response, repeatedly drawing laughter from the crowd as he recounted his own success winning in a blue state and said it was time "for us as a party to stop killing each other."
"If we want to have arguments about things that lead to nothing," he said, "we could just form a university."
Lisa Spies, who led Romney's fundraising efforts in the Jewish community, said the session was important not just because of Adelson but because it allowed each would-be candidate to make a good impression early on the other "major, major players" present, who included former ambassadors, Bush administration appointees, and major bundlers within the party.
"What we tried to do was get people signed on early," Spies said, recalling Romney's rounds of meetings at the same gathering three years ago, even as Adelson was clearly leaning toward Gingrich. Many of the coalition board members became some of the campaign's most prolific fundraisers, she said, and "those meetings were less about money, and more about building trust and relationships."
Even with all the interest swirling around Bush, J. Philip Rosen, a Manhattan lawyer who was a top member of Romney's finance committee, was one of a number of attendees who said it was "too early for a favorite."
"People are listening just like they did in 2007 and 2011," Rosen said. For many of the would-be candidates, he said, the weekend in Vegas would mark just the first of many meetings to come.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times