JERUSALEM – The U.S. presidential race might be deadlocked, but when Mitt Romney visits Israel on Sunday, July 29, the presumptive Republican nominee can reasonably expect the most heartfelt welcome he'll receive anywhere outside Utah.
Israeli enthusiasm for Romney is not necessarily the result of a carefully cultivated relationship -- as a former governor and business executive he had little time for foreign policy. Instead, affection for the candidate appears to be a clear case of ABO: Anyone But Obama.
The proof is in the polling. Thirty percent of Israelis surveyed think U.S.-Israel relations would improve under Romney, while a mere 8 percent said the same about a second Obama term. Among the 300,000 Americans living in Israel (half of whom are eligible to vote), support for Romney is twice as high as it is for Obama.
Romney's two-day visit -- during which he will also meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad -- is his fourth ever to Israel, and it's his first foreign trip since clinching the Republican nomination. The stop is aimed at two constituencies the candidate is desperate to woo: evangelicals -- reliably Republican but leery of his Mormonism -- and Jewish Americans, heavily concentrated in swing states like Ohio and Florida and vexed, his campaign believes, by Obama's policies toward the Jewish state.
"A lot of our members moved here as registered Democrats," says Kory Bardash, co-chair of Republicans Abroad Israel, a partisan advocacy group that claims to mobilize upwards of 4,000 volunteers during election season. "A lot of people are now saying, 'I've never voted Republican, but there's no way I'm voting Obama.' That includes many who voted for him in '08."
There are now "tens of thousands" of Republican voters in Israel, according to Bardash, but the real purpose of Romney's trip is to signal his commitment to Israel to voters back home -- a cause that is aided by Obama's apparent inability to connect with Israelis.
The problem doesn't seem to be that Israelis see Obama as openly hostile -- polls show them evenly split over whether he is "friendly" to their country. Instead, many think the president just doesn't "get" Israel and lacks the empathy of George W. Bush or even his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton.
"President Obama never acquired the connection with the Israeli public that President Clinton had," says Dore Gold, the American-born president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a former advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "Obama just hasn't managed to have the same 'click' with the man on the street."
"Many American Jews are very liberal and don't count Israel as one of the top issues in their life," says Bardash, a New Jersey native who moved to Jerusalem 16 years ago. "But among those who define themselves as pro-Israel and for whom Israel is important, we believe Obama has lost a lot of support."