LAS VEGAS — Two of the nation’s 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 gathered in Las Vegas.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker also stoked speculation about their own presidential ambitions, giving frustrated Republican advice on how to reclaim the White House in 2016.
“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 during the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual spring gathering. “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 the GOP must find a 2016 presidential nominee from “outside Washington.”
The Republican governors, both considering presidential bids, appeared at the Venetian resort casino along Las Vegas’ storied strip, which is owned by Republican super donor Sheldon Adelson. Their remarks came inside an ornate ballroom two floors from where unsuspecting gamblers played blackjack and roulette.
Two years before the 2016 presidential contest officially begins, the lesser-known competition for the GOP’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 was seated directly in front of the podium as Christie spoke.
The casino magnate almost single-handedly bankrolled the group behind former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s 2012 campaign. Now, he’s casting for a presidential candidate on whom to shower his millions of dollars in campaign cash.
Adelson is known for his devotion to Israel, in addition to an aggressive American foreign policy.
Walker conceded that he does not have extensive foreign policy experience, having been focused on state issues as the Wisconsin governor. But he called for a more consistent foreign policy, reflecting upon lessons he learned from raising his family.
“We make sure with both parents and grandparents that we were unified,” Walker said. “We didn’t waver. We didn’t allow our sons to push the line.”
The comments come as President Barack Obama grapples with the Ukraine crisis. Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in a call on Friday to have their foreign ministers meet to discuss a possible diplomatic resolution, while Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Paris Saturday for talks with his Russian counterpart.
The Republican speakers largely avoided criticizing the president by name in remarks that were thick with rhetoric and short on specifics.
The Wisconsin governor, who is not Jewish, also noted that his son’s name Matthew is from the Hebrew word for “Gift from God.” He later added that he decorates his residence with Christmas lights and a Menorah candle.
Christie, a Catholic, said he was overwhelmed by displays of religious tolerance during a recent trip to Jerusalem.
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 PACs 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.
“I am going to be responsible for all that happens on my watch,” he said and later added, “For people in government and people who are intent on providing leadership to a state or to our country, it’s strong and decisive action or lack thereof that does define ultimately who you are and what kind of leader you are.”