WASHINGTON, D.C. — With their party's full weight behind them, Republican presidential candidates have launched an all-out effort to woo Jewish voters into their ranks.
As the opening speaker at a GOP presidential forum sponsored by the National Jewish Coalition, the premier Republican Jewish group, Sen. Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) called on the United States to negotiate a "full-fledged comprehensive alliance" with Israel.
"It is time to go beyond the current level of cooperation between the United States and Israel," Dole told the 450 delegates gathered here Tuesday for the NJC's "Victory in '96" convention.
Seven of the Republican presidential candidates — all except Pat Buchanan — accepted the invitation to appear at the NJC event. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who was initially scheduled to appear, dropped out of the race last week.
Whether Jewish voters will flock to the Republican Party as its leaders hope will only be known on Election Day 1996.
But there is no question that the Republican Party is hoping to attract Jewish voters, who have traditionally supported the Democratic Party in overwhelming numbers.
"It's not acceptable for me as the chairman of the Republican Party for our candidate for president to get 19 percent of the Jewish vote," said Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
"We as a party must — and we as a party will — be more effective and more aggressive in advancing our message in the Jewish community," he said.
Barbour set a goal of 40 percent Jewish support for the GOP presidential nominee in the 1996 election.
Dole's latest initiative aimed at strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship follows his recent victory in ushering through Congress legislation that recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's capital and requires the U.S. Embassy in Israel to be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Dole has been working to overcome an anti-Israel reputation that has plagued the Republican presidential frontrunner for almost a decade.
The reputation emerged in the 1980s, when he opposed moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and he proposed a cut in Israel's foreign aid.
In introducing the senator, one of Dole's chief Jewish backers praised Dole's record on Israel.
"On our issues Bob Dole's relationship with Israel borders on historic," said businessman and philanthropist Leslie Wexner.
Dole has been "steady and consistent in his support for Israel," Wexner said.
In his 30-minute remarks, Dole said he believes that a formal treaty alliance would lead to "greater cooperation between the U.S. and Israel in Mideast defense planning," making the region safer for Israel, Arab states and American interests.
All of the candidates mentioned Israel in their half-hour remarks, but they focused mostly on the dominant themes from their individual campaigns.
None of the candidates substantively addressed other issues of particular concern to the Jewish community, including school prayer and other church-state issues.
They did, however, focus on domestic budget issues and foreign policy concerns, including the topical question of whether to send U.S. troops to enforce the Bosnia peace agreement.
The session convened the morning after President Clinton's Oval Office address that presented the case for sending troops.
Dole remained noncommittal but leaned toward supporting the Bosnia mission.
Dole said he told Clinton last night that he "made a good start" and "if you persuade the American people you can persuade the American Congress."
Other GOP candidates, however, railed against Clinton and his plan to send 20,000 U.S. forces to Bosnia.
"Outside of our treaty obligations we should not be prepared to fight in someone else's civil war," said Lamar Alexander, former Tennessee governor.
Alan Keyes, a longshot in the Republican race, criticized Clinton's plan and his pitch to American citizens to support it.
"It didn't sound like a really good argument to me," he said.
Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Calif.) and businessman Steven Forbes also addressed the delegates later in the day.
Gramm, who placed second to Dole in a recent Florida straw poll, said, "As a senator from Texas and a president of the United States, no one will be more committed to finding a [comprehensive Middle East] peace than I will be."
Gramm devoted most of his speech to budget issues.
The one-day forum, celebrating the NJC's 10th anniversary, was scheduled to conclude Tuesday evening with an address by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).