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Thursday, December 8, 2016

By Maeve Reston, Los Angeles Times

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 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 of 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.”