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Jewish Republicans watch nervously as favorites savage one another

WASHINGTON (JTA) — As the Republican primary fight moves from New Hampshire to South Carolina, Newt Gingrich is stepping up his attacks on Mitt Romney and some prominent Jewish Republicans — who have a rich, mutually admiring history with both men — are wondering what happens next.

Gingrich and a pro-Gingrich SuperPAC — reportedly funded to the tune of $5 million by Sheldon Adelson, one of the most generous U.S. Jewish philanthropists — are taking aim at what, for the GOP, is an unusual target: Romney’s past as a venture capitalist.

“You have to ask the question, is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of people and then walk off with the money?” Gingrich said Monday in New Hampshire, the day before its first in the nation primary.

Gingrich’s salvo was picked up by the other candidates and campaigns. For example, after tales flooded the news media of Romney’s liquidation of companies during his career as a venture capitalist, Griffin Perry — son of Texas Gov. Rick Perry — tweeted on Tuesday: “Mitt Romney knows how to lead … Lead people straight out the door with a pink slip.”

Jewish Republicans watched the to and fro with a degree of discomfiture.

“This disproves the idea that Republican Jews move in lockstep,” Noam Neusner, a former domestic policy adviser to President George W. Bush, told JTA.

Romney and Gingrich both have deep ties in the Jewish Republican community. Romney’s funders include Mel Sembler, the Florida shopping center magnate, and Fred Zeidman, a Texas lawyer. Gingrich has a long and abiding friendship with Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnate.

Both candidates have made Israel a central plank of their anti-Obama rhetoric. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, says Israel would be the first country he visits as president, in contrast to Obama’s failure to do so during his term. Gingrich has explicitly said he would strike Iran should it acquire a nuclear weapon and has said he would move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem on his first day in office.

While the two candidates might share views on the Middle East, their personal tensions have boiled over in recent weeks. Some observers are expressing amazement at the latest turn in the feud — not just because it has Gingrich and other GOP candidates taking aim at Romney’s business career, but also because the pro-Gingrich anti-Romney SuperPAC attacks are essentially being funded by Adelson.

But a source close to the casino mogul, a leading funder of Jewish conservative causes, said his $5 million donation last week to the SuperPAC did not necessarily signal agreement with the thrust of its anti-Romney campaign.

“It’s not about the other candidates in the race, it’s about a friend assisting a friend,” said the source.

Zeidman said none of Romney’s Jewish backers held it against Adelson for supporting Gingrich. Yes, Adelson has a longstanding friendship with the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives — but also, Zeidman said, because Gingrich deserved some degree of Jewish backing.

“I’m glad that Newt’s got support, because he was there when we needed him,” Zeidman said, referring to Gingrich’s role in the 1990s pushing back against the Clinton administration-led Oslo peace process and pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu during his firt term as prime minister. “He was phenomenal on Israel when he needed him the worst.”

But Gingrich’s current line of attack — and by extension Adelson’s bankrolling of it — has some wondering if the candidate and his patron will end up helping the person they most want to see defeated in 2012: the president.

The latest Gingrich line of attack on Romney recalled Hillary Rodham Clinton’s famous 3 A.M. call ad during the 2008 Democratic primaries, which questioned whether then-candidate Barack Obama had the necessary experience to handle international crises.

That attack, like Gingrich’s new focus on Romney’s business practices, marked a turn in the campaign: Instead of merely attacking a rival for not being true enough to a party’s colors, a candidate feeds into the opposing party’s narrative. In 2008, Clinton exploited fears that had been stoked by the GOP about Obama’s unreadiness; this year, Gingrich and others seized on an image that the Obama campaign has already peddled, of Romney as remote from working men and women.

“What he’s doing is a little vicious and I think it’s sort of gone beyond the line,” Zeidman said in an interview. “It sounds horrible coming out of Newt’s mouth.”

Gingrich’s campaign declined comment.

Gingrich is known to be furious because of what he saw as the personal nature of attacks by a SuperPAC affiliated with Romney that helped push him back to fourth place in Iowa last week, after polls had shown him leading in the first caucus state. Those ads, by Restore Our Future, accused Gingrich of attacking the federally owned housing giant Freddie Mac after he took $1.6 million to lobby for it. Gingrich says he was paid as a historian, not a lobbyist.

SuperPACs are political action committees formed after a Supreme Court ruling that allowed third parties to spend unlimited funds in a campaign. They are banned from directly consulting with a campaign.

Democrats barely contained their glee at the chance to exploit Gingrich’s line of attack. Randy Johnson, who had suffered from a downsizing engineered by Romney in 1992, is the Democrats’ point man in targeting the candidate for his career at Bain Capital. Johnson told the liberal TalkingPointsMemo website on Tuesday that Gingrich’s attacks on Romney — as opposed to those by Democrats — had produced a burst of invitations to appear on national media.

Some Jewish conservatives wondered whether Gingrich’s tack amounted to a kind of self-immolation.

“Any Republican nominee will be painted by Obama as these candidates are painting Romney now,” Seth Mandel wrote on the Commentary website. “The desire to resist being hammered by their own words in a general election alone should be enough to convince these candidates to avoid attacking Romney from the left.”

Matt Brooks, the director of the Republican Jewish Coaltion, said such sparring was par for the course — and helped battle test a candidate.

“At some point it’s fairly obvious that the Obama campaign would have raised this issue anyway, “ Brooks said. “I’m not sure they’re happy that it’s been taken away from them and is not on their terms.”

Gingrich’s tack also makes sense ahead of the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary; as conservative as the state’s reputation is, polls show that its GOP voters care more about job creation than they do social issues.

To that end, Winning the Future, the SuperPAC that backs Gingrich, has purchased an anti-Romney documentary, “King of Bain: When Mitt Romney Came to Town,” and plans to release it in the state in the coming days.

Zeidman said the purchase might ultimately serve Romney’s purpose; now that Gingrich owns the film, he’s unlikely to share it with Obama’s campaign should Romney win the nomination.

“Politics is politics and you don’t expect it to come from our own side, but I would rather face it now,” he said. “You’re taking an arrow out of their quiver, and I would rather see Mitt battle tested now.”