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WASHINGTON – To some conservative Jews, Texas Gov. Rick Perry would make an excellent presidential candidate. He’s been to Israel more than any other candidate in the field and has said he loves it. And Perry creates jobs.
But other Jewish conservatives seeking the anti-Obama candidate look at the three-term governor and see something arresting: He believes he’s on a mission from God.
Perry has nonplussed longtime Jewish supporters by claiming he has been “called” to the presidency and by hosting a prayer rally this month that appealed to Jesus to save America.
Jennifer Rubin, the Washington Post’s Right Turn columnist and a bellwether of Jewish conservatism, took liberals to task on her blog for treating the event as “a spectacle” – it was borne of deeply considered worries about the country’s parlous state, she said – but Rubin also expressed caveats about the rally.
“His words at the event were restrained but not ecumenical,” she wrote. “And his use of public office to promote the Christian event was, to me, inappropriate. The event, while scheduled last December, is still reflective of the man who would be president. Would he do this in the Oval Office? Does he not understand how many Americans might be offended? Is he lacking advice from a non-Texan perspective?”
Fred Zeidman, an influential Houston lawyer who has known Perry for decades and has hosted him at his home, said that “None of us remember him being quite as devout as he seems to be now, but we wouldn’t necessarily have known.”
Zeidman, who for eight years served as chairman of the board of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, supports Mitt Romney. But Zeidman told JTA that before endorsing Romney, he checked with Perry last December to ask whether he would be running. At the time Perry said no.
On Saturday, Perry threw his hat into the ring.
“A great country requires a better direction,” he said, declaring his candidacy. “A renewed nation needs a new president.”
Perry has been a conservative since before he switched parties in 1989 to became a Republican. A cotton farmer and former Air Force pilot, he led efforts in his first five years as a Democrat in the Texas Legislature to pare the budget.
Perry, a devout Methodist, was attracted to Israel from the launch of his career. One of his first acts after being elected agriculture commissioner in 1991 was to create the Texas-Israel Exchange, which promoted information and research sharing.
In a 2009 interview with The Jerusalem Post, when as governor he led a delegation to Israel, Perry – who at about the same time flirted with Texas secessionist rhetoric – said the alliance was a natural one.
“When I was here for the first time some 18 years ago and I was touring the country, the comparison between Masada and the Alamo was not lost on me,” he told the Post. “I mean, we’re talking about two groups of people who were willing to give up their lives for freedom and liberty.”
As much as Perry’s heartfelt love for Israel makes him attractive to Republican Jews, it is the other reason he was in Israel at the time – seeking out job creation initiatives, as he has across the globe – that has been the basis of his Jewish support.
“I became intrigued by Rick Perry when I read his book Fed Up! because it was exactly what I was feeling,” Robin Bernstein, who heads Perry’s fundraising in Florida, said in an interview.
“His economic success in Texas is a model for the entire country.”
Texas has managed to weather the recession comparatively well, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas has reported that half of all U.S. jobs created from June 2009 to April 2011 were in Texas.
Published last year, Fed Up!: Our Fight to Save America from Washington blames America’s woes on an arrogant power elite in Washington. In the first chapter, Perry accuses this elite of “chutzpah” – music to conservative ears seeking relief from what they see as government unbound.
“We are fed up with being overtaxed and overregulated,” Perry wrote. “We are tired of being told how much salt we can put on our food, what windows we can buy for our house, what kind of cars we can drive, what kinds of guns we can own, what kind of prayers we are allowed to say and where we can say them, what political speech we are allowed to use to elect candidates, what kind of energy we can use, what kind of food we can grow, what doctor we can see, and countless other restrictions on our right to live as we see fit.”
It’s a message that resounds with Jewish conservatives – save, perhaps, for its defense of public prayer.
By the same token, Perry’s declaration last month that the presidency is “what I’ve been called to” sent a shudder through some among the conservative Jewish establishment. This month it was Perry’s leadership in organizing the massive Houston prayer rally, dubbed The Response, and his insistence that “we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles” that led some Jewish conservatives to go on the record with their discomfiture.
“My response to The Response: No, thanks,” wrote Jacob Sullum, a syndicated columnist. “My people have managed without Jesus for thousands of years. Why start now?”
Sullum also criticized Perry for seeming to abandon his previous let-the-states-decide view on social issues in favor of amendments to the U.S. Constitution that would outlaw abortion and same-sex marriage everywhere in the country.
Sixteen rabbis were among 50 Houston clergy members who urged Perry not to host the rally. National groups like the Anti-Defamation League also opposed it.
“He called this rally as a governor,” Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, said in an interview before Perry’s formal declaration of his candidacy for president.
“He didn’t try to camouflage anything. He’s pleasant and he’s smart, he has good relations with the Jewish community, but this is a conscious disregard of law and authority. What troubles me most is his perception of where America is at.”
Bernstein, Perry’s Florida backer, said such concerns are overstated.
Jewish Democrats are eating up the controversy. In a statement, the National Jewish Democratic Council said it was “encouraging” Perry to run, “given that his record will help repel American Jews and remind them why they support Democrats in historic numbers.”
Zeidman wondered if, with the rally, his old friend was miscalculating.
“I don’t know that he has not gone too far in his appeal to the conservative wing of the party,” Zeidman said. “That could prove harmful in a general election.”
Still, Zeidman said, it would be a bigger mistake to underestimate a governor who in 11 years in office has wrested much power from the Legislature, where it had been concentrated for decades, and who knows how to win.
“He should never be underestimated in terms of his campaigning ability,” Zeidman said.
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