Religious overtones of Romney’s trip to Israel
By Tom Foreman and Eric Marrapodi, CNN
(CNN) – Mitt Romney will be glad handing and photo opping in Israel until Monday during the second leg of the presumptive GOP nominee’s international campaign trip.
It is unmistakably aimed, in part, at a traditional Democratic voting bloc: Jewish Americans who are politically active in fundraising, campaigning and voting.
“I think Mitt Romney is going to Israel certainly to court the Jewish vote,” said Randall Balmer, the chairman of the religion department at Dartmouth College and author of “God in the White House.”
“It’s definitely sending a message that Israel is important for Romney, that he, he has warm feelings about Israel, that he cares about Israel,” said Nathan Guttman, a Washington correspondent for the Jewish Daily Forward. “It’s sort of important for this kind of a Jewish electorate. But again, we should keep in mind that this is the minority of Jewish voters.”
He added, “Most of them are Obama voters to start with; they won’t be swayed by it; they don’t really care much.”
But Romney may have an even larger voting bloc in mind during his trip.
“The constituency he wants to impress is the evangelicals, people who have an unequivocal support for Israel,” Balmer said. “This is the constituency that was quite suspicious of him in the course of the primaries, and in many ways he hasn’t fully won them over.”
Meanwhile, President Obama appears to be trying to undercut the impact of the visit with either faction of the Jewish vote.
The White House released another $70-million in military aid for Israel on Friday, saying it underlines the president’s “unshakeable commitment” to that American ally.
Much has been made over perceived chilly relations between the Obama administration and the current administration in Israel.
The president won the vast majority of votes by Jewish Americans in 2008. A recent Gallup Daily tracking poll showed registered Jewish voters preferred Obama 68% to 25% over Romney.
Several conservative activists have told CNN that Romney’s trip to Israel is an important step in trying to strengthen his support among evangelicals and conservatives. The activists say that the trip will help reassure them about the former governor of Massachusetts.
Romney has struggled to win over many social conservatives who felt that his past positions on social issues were too liberal and many evangelicals who raised theological concerns over Romney’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Countless Christian evangelicals are indeed staunch supporters of Israel, citing a Biblical kinship with the Jewish nation.
Their interest in Israel’s well-being has motivated a number of Republican contenders to visit the Holy Land and speak out for Israeli rights.
One key group is Christians United for Israel, which has more than a million members and politically conservative leaders who have expressed disappointment over Obama’s sometimes tense relationship with Israel.
“American Christians, Americans in general, are going to want to see Governor Romney treat Israel and treat Prime Minister Netanyahu with a respect and an appreciation,” said Christian United for Israel’s Executive Director David Brog. “Many of us feel (that respect) has not been present, has been lacking in the current administration.”
“Unlike other issues, this issue is still in play,” Brog continued. “When it comes to the issue of foreign policy, and when it come to the issue of how a president will deal with our ally Israel and our struggle with radical Islam, people are still waiting for information, minds are still open. And this is where governor can influence voters and pick up significant support.”
Some Christians, known as Christian Zionists, believe that the Jews’ return to Israel, which became a Jewish state in 1948, is a sign of the approaching Rapture, when the righteous will ascend to heaven while others are left behind.
The Rapture, many evangelicals believe, will usher in an apocalyptic period that will culminate in Jesus’ return. Some Christians believe that keeping Israel in Jewish hands will help expedite that scenario.
Activists, academics and religious believers disagree about how such apocalyptic thinking may affect Christian support for Israel.
Many other Christians and Jews see such a scenario as a radical interpretation of scripture. Brog dismisses the notion that theology about the end times could boost support of Israel. “This is simply one of those urban myths,” he said.
Still, it all raises the stakes on Romney’s Israeli visit; making it clear this trip will be closely watched by American voters on both the left and the right.
CNN’s Dan Gilgoff and Kevin Bohn contributed to this report.