Republican Senate nominee Carly Fiorina has maintained a vigorous pace on the campaign trail this summer, but at the traditional kickoff to the general election she is heading to Israel for what her aides describe as a "personal trip."
The Labor Day weekend tour is a surprising diversion for the first-time candidate, who weighed in on U.S.-Israeli relations during her primary campaign but has kept a laser-like focus on job losses and rising government spending while sparring with Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer this summer.
Although Fiorina's campaign manager, Marty Wilson, said the trip is not intended to "drive any publicity" while she's in the country, it seems destined for maximum exposure.
It will serve to remind conservative evangelicals, a key Republican voter bloc that sympathizes with Israel, of Fiorina's candidacy, and could also capture the attention of Jewish voters, who usually side with Democrats.
The four-day trip is being arranged and paid for by the Republican Jewish Coalition. It begins a day after Israeli and Palestinian leaders are scheduled to resume direct peace talks in Washington and right after Fiorina's first debate with Boxer, two events that could steer voters' attention back to foreign policy.
Wilson dismissed questions about the timing by saying that the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive has long wanted to visit Israel. "They are a vital link to that region of the world; they are a democracy and one that we have to support," Wilson said. "For Carly to be informed and updated on what's happening over there is a good thing."
Fiorina, however, suggested in an interview with an Israeli business publication earlier this month that she had more ambitious designs. Alluding to a possible trip, she said she hoped to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to "convey directly to the people of Israel that they will not have a stronger friend in the U.S. Senate than me."
Matthew Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish coalition, said that the timing of Israeli-Palestinian talks has made scheduling difficult, but that Fiorina would meet with "a number of people at high levels" within the Israeli government and with business leaders. He declined to name them.
He said it was unlikely that Fiorina, who is traveling with her husband Frank, would make any policy pronouncements during the trip.
"It's not about politics," Brooks said. "It's about an opportunity to learn."
Still, the overseas trip has served as a rite of passage for many candidates and could be useful in buffing up the portfolio of a political novice like Fiorina, who has sought foreign policy guidance from former Secretaries of State George P. Shultz and Condoleezza Rice. Fiorina traveled extensively in the five and a half years she led HP, but few Californians would have followed those trips closely.
Former Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who counted Fiorina among his advisors, traveled to Israel, Iraq and Europe shortly after winning the 2008 primary campaign. Though the Arizona senator pledged not to discuss politics, the trip was widely viewed as a chance to frame him as an elder statesman and it conveniently preceded a major foreign policy speech at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council.
Later that summer, McCain's then-rival Barack Obama sought to burnish his national security credentials with a tour that included stops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Europe and Israel, where he prayed at Jerusalem's Western Wall. The same group arranging Fiorina's trip sponsored then- Texas Gov. George W. Bush's visit to Israel in 1998, a journey that was seen as broadening his commitment to the region.
Boxer, who is Jewish, has strong support in the community, but Fiorina has courted pro-Israel groups since the early days of her candidacy. She has held several events with the Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles, and has reached out to leaders involved with the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
Before the June primary she criticized opponent Tom Campbell for twice opposing increased economic aid to Israel while he served in Congress. At the same time, Fiorina had to fend off criticisms about HP's ties to Iran under her watch. She has said she was unaware that a Dubai-based subsidiary of HP sold printers to Iran, an Israeli adversary which that is subject to a trade embargo. During the campaign she has said HP complied with every export law.
John C. Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron who specializes in religion in politics, said Fiorina's pro-Israel appeals could boost turnout among evangelical Protestants, whose affinity for Israel is rooted in the Bible, and resonate with Jewish voters as well.
An emphasis on Israel has the potential to turn off other groups of voters, including some Muslims, Catholics and more liberal Protestants, Green said. But he added that past elections have shown that evangelicals and Jewish voters tend to place a much higher priority on issues involving Israel, while "groups on the other side who might be bothered by it tend to have other issue priorities."
"There's not as much of a downside talking about these issues as there is an upside," Green said.
Veteran Republican strategist Charlie Black, who supports Fiorina, said that by now she has probably locked down conservative voters who feel strongly about Israel. But he said the Israel trip could lead to a second look from some Jewish voters as well as donors willing to contribute to both candidates, particularly those who feel President Obama has not been sufficiently supportive of Israel.
"Sen. Boxer's got a pretty strong record of support for Israel, but President Obama does not," Black said. "It's going to be a very close race. A few votes here and there that aren't the traditional Republican voters could make the difference."