Five takeaways from Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Candidates Forum

Five takeaways from Republican Jewish Coalition Presidential Candidates Forum
© Greg Nash, Getty Images

Nearly the entirety of the Republican presidential field appeared in Washington on Thursday to court some of the nation’s most powerful Jewish conservatives, as the candidates hone their messages less than two months before the first votes are cast.

The Republican Jewish Coalition’s (RJC) presidential forum offered the candidates a chance to flex their foreign policy muscles. National security and the Jewish state of Israel, a key U.S. ally, are two of the most important issues for the group’s members.

Meanwhile, the candidates continued to up their rhetoric against one another, as they seek to draw clear distinctions down the stretch in an effort to stand apart in the crowded field.

Here are five takeaways from the daylong event:

Teflon Don

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIran claims it rejected Trump meeting requests 8 times ESPY host jokes Putin was as happy after Trump summit as Ovechkin winning Stanley Cup Russian ambassador: Trump made ‘verbal agreements’ with Putin MORE can do no wrong.

It seemed that Trump would face a skeptical and potentially hostile crowd — he arrived just hours after The Associated Press quoted him as saying that Israel might need to make serious concessions in any potential peace deal with the Palestinians.

Trump didn’t clarify his remarks during his address, and at one point drew boos for saying he hadn’t decided yet whether the U.S. should relocate it’s Israeli Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

But the showman largely captivated the crowd.

He brought a raft of jokes that had the crowd rolling, despite a reliance on well-worn stereotypes about Jewish people being good at business.

“Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t negotiate deals?” Trump asked. “This room negotiates a lot. This room perhaps more than any room I’ve ever spoken to.”

Later, the crowd erupted as Trump declared that the Jews in the audience wouldn’t support his candidacy because they like being asked for money and he’s the only one not seeking their financial support.

The heavyweights at RJC will likely cast their lots with a more establishment-friendly candidate, but Trump proved again that he’s a compelling and entertaining candidate.

Carson’s foreign policy inexperience

Ben Carson has been struggling for weeks to elucidate his foreign policy vision, and those struggles continued on Thursday as he stumbled through a snoozer of a speech that read more like a book report than a statement of authority.

“I normally am a spontaneous speaker, but I want to make sure to get all my points in, so I’ll be using a script,” Carson said.

In an attempt to display that he’s been studying the intricacies of Middle Eastern politics, the retired neurosurgeon recited statistics while looking down and reading directly from prepared text.

But he repeatedly mispronounced “Hamas,” the name of a Palestinian group accused of promoting violence against Israelis in the region (most said it sounded like Carson was saying "hummus"), and left the stage without taking questions from the audience, as every other candidate had before him.

Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump’s walk-back fails to stem outrage on Putin meeting The Memo: Trump allies hope he can turn the page from Russian fiasco Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash MORE is playing it safe

While GOP front-runner Donald Trump spoke without a script and Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzRussia raises problems for GOP candidates Deal to fix family separations hits snag in the Senate O'Rourke calls for Trump's impeachment over Putin summit MORE (R-Texas) barely looked down at the lectern, Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) had his eyes on his notes.

Rubio read nearly word for word a prepared speech on Israel and national security. He was a study in discipline and offered the audience no spontaneity. As a result, Rubio's reception was more muted than the repeated cheers and standing ovations that Cruz and Trump garnered with their more incendiary rhetoric. 

But Rubio has a different strategy: He has been slowly, steadily, building his position and staying on script, avoiding gaffes that might be used against him in a general election.

Bush, Cruz get warmest receptions

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is struggling in the GOP race, but he and his family are still held in high esteem among many GOP elites.

A confident Bush was right at home detailing his national security vision — he’s far better getting into the weeds of policy than he is at discussing campaign politics.

And whenever Bush needed a boost, he merely name dropped his father, former President George H.W. Bush; his brother, former President George W. Bush; or his mother, Barbara Bush, and the crowd would erupt.

"The person I rely on most as it relates to U.S.-Israeli policy is my brother,” Bush said to cheers. “I thought I could get an applause line out of that.”

Cruz, the first speaker of the day, received a similarly warm reception.

The extent of his popularity among this audience is perhaps surprising given he has opposed foreign policy positions supported by many in the hawkish pro-Israel community. Unlike Rubio, Cruz does not support the most robust surveillance program of U.S. citizens and nor does he favor removing the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. 

But Cruz made up for these perceived disadvantages by telling the audience other things it wanted to hear. He repeated the phrase "radical Islamic terrorism" and mocked President Obama for his refusal to utter those words. And he got the crowd especially exercised when he attacked Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryJohn Kerry: Trump 'surrendered lock, stock and barrel' to Putin's deceptions Get ready for summit with no agenda and calculated risks Will Democrats realize that Americans are tired of war? MORE for his suggestion that Israel risked becoming an "apartheid" state.

Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump’s damage control falters Trump: 'I think I did great at the news conference' George Will calls Trump ‘sad, embarrassing wreck of a man’ MORE found his purpose

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham is scoring near zero percent in the polls — so low, he cannot even get onto the lower-tier debate stage. But his low standing has freed him to do the unexpected.

Graham barely mentioned Israel, and instead dedicated nearly his entire RJC speech to eviscerating Cruz, who had spoken earlier in the morning. 

Graham, who viscerally dislikes Cruz, methodically picked through his senate colleague's speech, refuting assertions such as Cruz's hard-line positions on immigration and abortion. Graham said the Cruz vision would lead to a certain Republican loss in a general election against Democrats. Expect more of this unshackled Graham as the campaign goes on.