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Jeb Bush leads GOP hopefuls to Vegas to woo Sheldon Adelson

As the 2016 Republican hopefuls quietly court donors this year, few have as much attraction as billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who, along with wife Miriam, gave more than $92 million to campaign groups in 2012.

That's why some of the top potential contenders for the presidential nomination plan to head to Las Vegas late this week to court Adelson at a gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition, for which he provides much of the money and serves as a member of the board.

Jeb Bush, who plans to make a decision about a presidential run by early next year, will get top billing as the featured speaker Thursday night at a private VIP dinner in the hangar that houses Adelson’s fleet.

On Saturday, three other prominent hopefuls -- Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin -- will address the broader gathering at Adelson’s hotel, the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino. The Republican National Committee’s data guru, Andy Barkett, will also talk to the group as he tries to raise money for the GOP’s project to enhance and enrich the party’s voter files.

Adelson showed his ability to wreak havoc on the Republican primary process in 2012 when he and his wife almost single-handedly kept the candidacy of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich alive by donating $10 million to a pro-Gingrich "super PAC" that was running ads attacking Mitt Romney.

After assiduous courting by Romney's team, the casino magnate later became a major donor to Restore Our Future, the super PAC that supported the former Massachusetts governor’s candidacy.

When Romney went to Jerusalem in the summer of 2012, Adelson and his wife were seated in one of the front rows as Romney delivered a speech on the Iranian nuclear threat and the importance of strengthening the ties between the U.S. and Israel – two of Adelson’s top concerns. And Adelson sat next to Romney at an intimate fundraiser at the King David Hotel shortly before the candidate left Israel.

For the three governors, Saturday’s appearance before Adelson and other potential big-money donors will be an early opportunity to frame their foreign policy arguments. They'll speak against a backdrop of rising concern about Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and how it could affect the negotiations to restrict Tehran’s nuclear activities.

The Republican Jewish Coalition has been a key force behind a stalled Senate bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran if it violated the terms of the interim agreement reached with U.S. and other major powers in November. The proposed  legislation includes language stating that if Israel were to take military action in “legitimate self-defense against Iran's nuclear weapon program, the U.S. should provide diplomatic, military and economic support.”

The White House issued a veto threat in December, warning that the bill could scuttle negotiations.

In recent presidential cycles, the Republican Jewish Coalition -- and its allied super PAC -- has focused on capturing for the GOP a greater share of the Jewish vote, which has overwhelmingly favored Democrats. In the final months of 2012, the group spent more than $7 million on a targeted effort to reach voters in Florida, Ohio, Nevada and Pennsylvania through ads, phone banking and door-knocking.

Romney lost in those four states, but he won 30% of the Jewish vote to Obama’s 69%, according to an exit poll analysis by the Pew Research Center (marking a dip from Obama’s 78% share of the Jewish vote in 2008). Leaders at the Republican Jewish Coalition say they see promise in the trend line, noting that Romney doubled the share of the Jewish vote received by GOP nominees in the 1990s.

But Democratic strategists have vigorously argued that there is little evidence that Republicans are making headway within that slice of the electorate. State-by-state measurements are difficult because the number of Jews in the exit poll sample are small, so the margin of error is big. Pew's analysis showed that the Jewish vote accounted for 2% of the 2012 electorate compared with 4% in 2000.

[For the Record, 8:11 a.m. PDT March 14: A previous version of this post incorrectly said Sheldon Adelson was chairman of the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition. He is a board member but not chairman.] 

maeve.reston@latimes.com

Twitter: @MaeveReston

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