WASHINGTON (JTA) — Ron Paul’s unlikely rise in the Republican presidential race has Jewish conservatives on edge.
The Texas congressman had been regarded as a fringe figure whose views, especially on foreign policy — including his opposition to the U.S.-Israel alliance — put him far outside the Republican mainstream.
But new polls show Paul in a dead heat in Iowa with Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. In a crowded Republican field, analysts say, making the top three in Iowa could generate momentum in subsequent contests. Already, polls show Paul tied for second place with Gingrich in New Hampshire, where Romney leads.
In response to Paul’s surge, Jewish conservatives have launched a counteroffensive, trying to spread the word among the Iowa grassroots about his views on Israel and Iran, as well as about his past associations with race-baiting rhetoric. Dan Lederman, a state senator in South Dakota who is active in the RJC and remains influential in the Republican Party in neighboring Iowa, his native state, described a typical outreach effort over lunch with Iowa Republican voters.
“I brought up a lot of subjects,” Lederman, who backs Gingrich, said in an interview. “His views on national security, the white supremacy thing, foreign policy, the stance that having a nuclear Iran is okay.”
The hope among those spreading the word is that Iowans would take these views to Christmas week get-togethers and that Paul’s support would recede by Jan. 3, when the Iowa caucuses take place.
The Republican Jewish Coalition has made much of its refusal to invite Paul to its Dec. 7 candidate’s forum, attended by all the other main candidates. “He’s just so far outside of the mainstream of the Republican party and this organization,” RJC Executive Director Matthew Brooks said at the time, explaining that inviting Paul to attend would be like inviting Barack Obama to speak.
It’s not just the RJC that’s pushing back against Paul; the Republican candidates are too, Brooks noted. “Almost all the major candidates have been articulating their own views that demonstrate how out of touch Paul is with the Republican Party,” Brooks said.
After Paul said in a Dec. 15 Iowa debate that he did not believe that the evidence necessarily supported the contention that Iran was seeking a nuclear weapon, other candidates pushed back.
“This truly makes me nervous when I hear that type of rhetoric out of Dr. Paul,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry told ABC News the next day. “We cannot have a president of the United States that basically is so hands-off to a country like Iran that they say, ‘It’s not our business, we’re not going to get involved.’”
It is not only Paul’s foreign policy views that have stirred disquiet. As Paul has risen to near the top of the Republican pack, a years-old controversy over newsletters published under his name in the 1980s and 1990s have resurfaced. The newsletters featured conspiracy-mongering language assailing blacks, gays and Israel in often lurid terms.
While Paul has said he did not write or even read the newsletters, a recent revelation seemed to tie him more closely to them. A 1993 subscription solicitation letter appearing above Ron Paul’s signature and written in the first person leveled the accusation that the “Israeli lobby plays Congress like a cheap harmonica,” warned of a “race war” and said there was a gay-led cover up of AIDS.
Paul’s campaign has also repudiated the solicitation letter and said that Paul did not write it. The campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Over the weekend, a former longtime congressional and campaign aide to Paul emerged with new revelations. Eric Dondero, who says his mother is Jewish, and who considered challenging Paul for his congressional seat in 2008 — five years after he left Paul’s employ under disputed circumstances — wrote an article insisting that Paul is not a racist or anti-Semite, but that he is anti-Israel.
“I can categorically say that I never heard anything out of his mouth, in hundreds of speeches I listened too over the years, or in my personal presence that could be called, ‘anti-Semite’,” Eric Dondero, wrote on the Right Wing News website.
“He is however, most certainly anti-Israel, and anti-Israeli in general,” Dondero continued. “He wishes the Israeli state did not exist at all. He expressed this to me numerous times in our private conversations. His view is that Israel is more trouble than it is worth, specifically to the America taxpayer. He sides with the Palestinians, and supports their calls for the abolishment of the Jewish state, and the return of Israel, all of it, to the Arabs.”
Dondero also wrote that Paul repeatedly said that saving Jews was not reason enough for the United States to have entered World War II.
Paul’s campaign dismissed the claims, telling media Dondero was a “disgruntled” fired staffer who had “zero credibility.”
But Dondero’s claim about Paul’s hands-off view toward the Nazis and the Holocaust was backed up by Jeffrey Scott Shapiro, a blogger at the conservative BigGovernment website, who recounted an exchange he had with Paul in 2009.
“I wouldn’t risk American lives to do that,” Shapiro quoted Paul as saying when asked if it would have been worth entering the war “purely as a moral imperative” to save Jews. “If someone wants to do that on their own because they want to do that, well, that’s fine, but I wouldn’t do that,” Paul allegedly said.
Given Paul’s views, some are predicting a backlash against Iowa’s first-in-the-nation contest if Paul should manage to pull out a win in the Iowa caucuses. The idea that someone with those views could win Iowa have led a number of conservatives to wonder preemptively whether the state caucuses are truly representative of the national party. Lending credibility to its image as a promoter of outliers, Iowa’s Republican caucuses admit voters who have registered as late as the day of the caucuses — something critics say allows the participation of activists not otherwise sympathetic to the party.
“If Iowa can’t sniff out such characters, why put it in charge of the winnowing?” said Jennifer Rubin, the Washington Post’s influential conservative blogger.
Paul, first elected to Congress in 1974, left the party in 1988 to run for president on the Libertarian ticket. He practiced medicine from 1989 until 1996, when he returned to Congress as a Republican — but only after besting a massive Republican establishment effort to defeat him led by Karl Rove, the adviser to then Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
The Washington Post ran a story on Tuesday showing that out of hundreds of Paul’s congressional initiatives, only four made it to the House floor and only one — facilitating the sale of federal property in Galveston — became law.
Meanwhile, the website of Pat Buchanan, another cold-on-Israel conservative who upended the party when he won the New Hampshire primary in 1992, has taken up Paul’s defense.
“The principled, antiwar, Constitution-obeying, Fed-hating, libertarian Republican congressman from Texas stands firmly outside the bounds of permissible dissent as drawn by either the Republican establishment or the mainstream media,” said Timothy Carney, a contributor to Buchanan’s website.
Carney said things would get “ugly” for Paul should he win Iowa.
Paul’s campaign website returns the favor, quoting liberally from Buchanan’s writings. It is not clear if Buchanan — who himself bolted the Republican Party in 2000 for a Reform Party presidential run — is endorsing Paul.
Paul’s staying power is allowing Democrats to depict Republicans as unwilling to forcefully repudiate the congressman for his foreign policy views.
“The Republican National Committee and Jewish Republicans need to pivot quickly from rhetoric to an education campaign in Iowa to ensure that Republican voters who care about the U.S.-Israel relationship understand where Paul stands on Israel,” David Harris, the National Jewish Democratic Council president, wrote on The Huffington Post.
In fact, the RJC and others have aggressively pushed back against Paul in recent weeks.
While Paul has led the pack among young voters in Iowa, some expect that the state’s large number of evangelicals could prove to be a stumbling block for him.
“They are very upset with his position on Israel,” said Harlan “Bud” Hockenberg, an RJC activist who for decades has been a leader in the state’s Republican politics.