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LAS VEGAS (AP) — The GOP presidential candidates will compete for donors and offer their strong support for Israel in its war with Hamas as they address the annual gathering of a major Republican Jewish group this weekend.
The Republican Jewish Coalition’s gathering in Las Vegas has for years been a key stop for GOP candidates as they seek not only to court Jewish voters but also to present themselves as stalwart allies of Israel, a key priority for many in the party’s base, particularly Christian evangelicals.
This year’s summit, underway Friday, comes with Israel in crisis after the Oct. 7 attack from Gaza by Hamas. The conflict has threatened to spread across the region and has roiled tensions over the war in the U.S., particularly on college campuses. In the wake of the attack, the Republican National Committee announced that the Republican Jewish Coalition will be co-sponsoring the third GOP presidential debate, scheduled for Nov. 8 in Miami.
For Republican White House hopefuls, the war has become a prominent issue on the campaign trail in recent weeks, and the reception they get as they address the crowd Saturday could be a key measure of strength in a contest that's been dominated by former President Donald Trump.
Trump has for years received a warm reception from the Coalition, with attendees sometimes given red yarmulkes with his name on them, reminiscent of his signature “Make America Great Again” hats. A longtime benefactor of the group, billionaire casino mogul and GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson, became a big backer of Trump and helped him in 2016 to win over Coalition members who initially supported other candidates.
Adelson died in 2021. His widow, Miriam Adelson, has remained a major party donor and benefactor for the Republican Jewish Coalition but has vowed to stay neutral in the presidential primary. Other donors in the room may be looking for a candidate to support, however.
“I think the people in the room mirror exactly what’s happening in the Republican Party as a whole,” said Matt Brooks, CEO of the Coalition. “Each of the candidates have strong supporters. Each of the candidates are, at this point, relatively known quantities, but there’s also a group of people who are trying to kick the tires and hear and see who they want to align themselves with.”
Trump has declared that no president has done more to support Israel than he did, including his delivery on the promise to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
But it's unclear if some of the former president's actions since the 2020 election may lead to a frostier reception than in years past. The day after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, when a mob of Trump supporters tried to stop the certification of Democrat Joe Biden's presidential victory, the Coalition issued a statement condemning the attack, calling for a peaceful transition of power and congratulating Biden.
Trump, as he seeks the White House a third time, still refuses to acknowledge Biden's win.
He addressed the conference by video last year shortly after announcing his campaign, but there seemed to be few signs of enthusiasm as his legal troubles began to bubble up. A week after the conference, he drew condemnation from Republicans for dining with a Holocaust-denying white nationalist and the rapper formerly known as Kanye West after the artist, now going by Ye, made his own string of antisemitic comments.
And just this month, Trump, known for broadcasting his personal grievances, drew criticism after the deadly attack in Israel by lashing out at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and referring to Lebanon’s Hezbollah group as “very smart.”
After his comments were denounced by his rivals and criticized by some of his allies, Trump a few days later issued a statement of support for Netanyahu, invoking his nickname and saying “#IStandWithBibi” and “#IStandWithIsrael" — a move that did not go unnoticed by the head of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
“I think he has done a good job at recommitting himself to supporting Prime Minister Netanyahu and to standing and being absolutely rock solid when it comes to Israel,” Brooks said. “He has a long history and a long record of being an incredible pro-Israel president when he served, and the people in the room understand that and recognize the record that he brings with him to Las Vegas.”
In fact, Trump's political support broadly within the party does not seem to have suffered much, and his large lead in the primary race seems to have only solidified.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley have each made the war and their support for Israel central to their campaign messages in recent weeks. Haley has appeared competitive with DeSantis' second-place position in some national polls.
Haley has leaned into her foreign policy experience in her time serving in Trump’s administration. DeSantis has been using the power of his office to charter flights for Floridians stranded in Israel and pressuring state-funded universities to disband a pro-Palestinian student group.
In addition to Trump, Haley and DeSantis, the other presidential candidates in the lineup are South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.
New Speaker of the House Mike Johnson is scheduled to address the summit Saturday night. Johnson, who was chosen by Republicans to lead the chamber only on Wednesday, takes the helm as the Biden administration is asking Congress to send aid to Israel and Ukraine.
Other GOP officials, including House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, Florida Sen. Rick Scott and South Dakota Sen. John Thune, are also slated to speak during the three-day summit on the Las Vegas Strip.
The event marks the first time most of the GOP candidates have made their way to Nevada, a state expected to be the third to weigh in on the field in voting early next year. The Western state is usually overlooked by candidates because of its limited political impact, and it’s received especially little campaign activity in this year’s GOP contest.
That’s largely because Trump is seen to have a heavy advantage in the state and the Nevada GOP’s decision to set rules for its caucus that are seen as benefiting the former president. Three candidates— Pence, Haley and Scott — have opted to skip the caucus and a chance to win presidential delegates. Instead, they’ve filed to compete in the state-run primary, where they can hope to win headlines showcasing their strength.
Separate from the Jewish Coalition, DeSantis is to speak Saturday morning to a Nevada Republican group at a casino-resort on the Las Vegas Strip. Trump is expected to address supporters Saturday afternoon at a country music bar.