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Republican governors court donors in Las Vegas

March 30, 2014

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Two of the highest-profile Republican governors on Saturday called for more aggressive leadership on America’s challenges abroad, emphasizing their support for Israel as they courted powerful Jewish donors.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker also stoked speculation about their own presidential ambitions as they gave frustrated Republicans advice on how to reclaim the White House in 2016 after losing two straight elections.

The Republican speakers at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual spring gathering largely avoided criticizing President Barack Obama by name in remarks that were thick with rhetoric faulting Obama’s foreign policy while offering few specifics. The comments came as Obama grapples with the Ukraine crisis.

“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. “In New Jersey, nobody has to wonder whether I’m for them or against them.”

Walker declared that the nation needs a “swift and decisive” foreign policy, while insisting that Republicans must find a presidential nominee from “outside Washington.”

The Republican governors, both considering presidential bids, appeared at the Venetian resort casino, which is owned by Republican super donor Sheldon Adelson. Their remarks came inside an ornate ballroom two floors from where gamblers played blackjack and roulette.

Two years before the 2016 presidential contest officially begins, the lesser-known competition for the party’s most influential donors is well underway. No donor is more sought after than Adelson, who is among the 10 richest people in the world. He did not attend Walker’s speech, but he was seated directly in front of the podium as Christie spoke.

Earlier in the week, Adelson met privately with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who addressed the Republican Jewish Coalition’s senior members at the airport hangar of Adelson’s company. Ohio Gov. John Kasich was the featured speaker during a Saturday luncheon that Adelson attended, along with scores of Jewish donors.

“America must be engaged in the world and we should help the people who share our values,” Kasich said in a speech that repeatedly referred to Adelson by name.

The casino magnate almost single-handedly bankrolled the group behind former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s unsuccessful 2012 presidential bid and later put his money behind Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Now, he’s casting for a presidential candidate on whom to shower what could amount to tens of millions of dollars in campaign cash.

Adelson is known for his devotion to Israel, in addition to an aggressive American foreign policy.

Christie, a Catholic, said he was overwhelmed by displays of religious tolerance during a recent trip to Jerusalem. “I took a helicopter ride from occupied territories across ... and just felt, personally, how extraordinary that was to understand the military risk that Israel faces every day,” he said.

The comment about “occupied territories” drew murmurs from some in the audience. The Israeli government and by extension most of Israel’s supporters in the U.S. don’t consider the West Bank and East Jerusalem to be occupied territory.

The Las Vegas gathering offered a fresh look into the murky and evolving world of campaign finance — a world with few remaining rules for anyone with deep pockets and a deep desire to influence the political process.

The 2010 Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision helped transform a former system that had some loopholes, but generally required disclosure and limits for individual donors.

With a net worth estimated at nearly $40 billion, Adelson is now free to use a collection of super political action committee’s and non-profit groups to give and spend unlimited sums of money to influence elections, sometimes without having to disclose his specific role publicly.

He donated more than $90 million to political groups in the last presidential election.

Christie briefly addressed his challenges in New Jersey just days after a report he commissioned cleared him of any involvement in the politically motivated plot to create huge traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge last year.

He promised to be more questioning of his staff going forward.

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