Potential GOP presidential candidates speak in Las Vegas, criticize Obama’s foreign policy

Several potential GOP presidential candidates speaking in Las Vegas on Saturday criticized President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, saying the White House believes in toothless negotiations rather than U.S. military and economic power to influence nations and events.

“When America does not play an active, vigorous role in the world, bad people do,” said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. “And we cannot allow that to happen.”

“We cannot have a world where our friends are unsure if we are with them and our enemies are unsure if we’re against them,” he added.

Under the Obama administration, Christie said the United States is no longer held in high esteem around the world.

“We no longer have a government that people around the world want to emulate,” Christie said. “For decades, the United States government, with all its flaws, was seen as being able to get things done. … And now we are not seen that way. The dysfunction in Washington, D.C., is no longer being emulated around the world. It’s being mocked around the world.”

Christie was one of four possible GOP presidential candidates to address the annual spring meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition at The Venetian. The hotel-casino’s owner, Sands Corp. Chairman Sheldon Adelson, attended the meeting to hear Christie speak.

Other speakers included John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

All four men were meeting with Adelson behind the scenes while the Sands boss, one of the most generous GOP donors, plays White House kingmaker. He donated more than $100 million to GOP candidates and causes in 2012 and plans to contribute more for 2016, he has said.

CHRISTIE ASKED ABOUT SCANDAL

Christie has been politically wounded after some members of his staff caused an enormous traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge connecting New Jersey and New York to punish a local mayor who didn’t back Christie’s re-election in 2013. Christie said he didn’t know anything about it, and an internal probe released Thursday cleared him.

He was asked about the scandal at the conference. He said he learned that he can’t trust everybody, but he also took responsibility.

“It is always confidence-shaking and disappointing when people that you trust let you down,” Christie said. “And what you realize as the leader of that organization (is) you are ultimately responsible for that. … I am going to be responsible for all that happens on my watch.”

He said at a news conference Friday that the scandal wouldn’t affect his decision on whether to run for president in 2016.

Bolton, in his speech, was more precise in criticizing Obama’s foreign policy. He said the president has been weak in pressing Russia to stop threatening Ukraine and to get out of Crimea. He also said Obama has failed to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons development, to stop Syria’s brutal campaign against its people and to help forge a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

“We need leadership in the House and Senate and we will need a president who does not accept America is weak and in decline,” Bolton said, adding Obama believes “negotiations solve international conflicts.”

“I don’t think it’s his priority,” Bolton said of national security, adding that Obama cares more about domestic policy. “International affairs are a distraction. He has other things he wants to do. … He’s living in a world of rhetoric and words rather than living in the real world of power.”

Bolton also slammed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who presided over the State Department in 2012 when the U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed in Benghazi. No one has been held responsible yet, he said.

“The lesson is you can kill the personal representative of the president of the United States and get away with it and that is a terrible lesson, and Hillary Clinton is not going to be allowed to forget it,” Bolton said to loud applause, mentioning the potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2016.

Walker said U.S. foreign policy is inconsistent. “We seem to be changing the rules along the way,” he said.

“If people around the world, not only our adversaries, don’t believe we are strong they will take action,” Walker said.

Walker also spoke about domestic policy, saying Republicans are focused on cutting taxes and increasing job opportunities for people.

He said he just signed off on a $500 million personal and property tax break for the residents of Wisconsin, yet he’s also been able to achieve a budget surplus as people spend more money and revenues rise.

“If you want people to live the American dream, the best thing you can do is put money back in the hands of the hardworking consumer, the hardworking taxpayer,” Walker said.

Walker also promoted cutting regulations and said Obamacare needs to be replaced with a more competitive health insurance system that allows patients to shop around for health care to cut costs.

Walker also argued for giving states more power and flexibility to innovate while decentralizing the government.

“We’re the ones at the forefront of getting things done,” Walker said.

Kasich, the luncheon keynote speaker, focused on domestic policies and talked about how he had cut taxes and the deficit in his home state.

Ohio went from having an $8 billion deficit to a $1.5 billion budget surplus under his watch during the past three years.

Kasich also promoted mentoring in schools to improve graduation rates and doing more to fight drug addiction in cities and towns nationwide as more children get hooked on prescription drugs and heroin.

“We have to take our communities back,” said Kasich, who spent 18 years in Congress before becoming governor of Ohio.

Asked by an audience member what he knows about international relations, he noted he sat on the Armed Services Committee while in Congress. He said Israel’s security is a primary concern, prompting Adelson and others in the room to give him a standing ovation.

TESTING THE WATERS

None of the four main speakers have announced presidential bids, although they all appear to be testing the political waters.

Adelson, who’s on the board of the GOP Jewish organization, also met with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush Thursday night when Bush spoke at a VIP dinner Adelson held inside his private airport hangar.

“A lot of people think he has the right mix” to be president, said one insider, speaking privately about the buzz during the dinner and the sudden rise of the prospect that Bush might decide 2016 is his time.

Bush, governor from 1999 to 2007, is the only Republican to serve two full four-year gubernatorial terms in Florida. He has since launched the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which promotes more school choice and high-tech learning. Bush on Thursday visited Nevada’s best high school, Advanced Technologies Academy, to tout his ideas.

Still, Bush’s last name might be a handicap if he decides to run, said the insider, because of Bush fatigue. His older brother served two terms as president and launched an unpopular war in Iraq in 2003 as well as in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Their father, George H.W. Bush, was president for one term, defeated by former President Bill Clinton in 1992.

If Hillary Clinton runs, the legacy issue might become moot, however. Clinton, the former U.S. senator and secretary of state under Obama — who defeated her in the 2008 primary — is being urged to run in 2016. National polls show she’s by far the best bet among Democrats this far out to beat any Republican opponent.

The Republican Jewish Coalition meeting stretches over four days, beginning Thursday and ending today. Most of it is closed. It includes strategy sessions, speeches and entertainment, including poker and golf tournaments and Scotch tastings.

But the behind-the-scenes attraction was the “Sheldon Adelson primary,” or competition among Republican White House hopefuls to win the support of the 80-year-old mogul. He’s worth about $37.5 billion.

In 2012, Adelson backed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s presidential bid by donating $15 million to a super political action committee for his campaign until Gingrich dropped out. Then Adelson backed Mitt Romney, the GOP presidential nominee who ultimately lost to Obama, donating $30 million to Romney’s super PAC.

Adelson’s main issue driving his donations is support for Israel and its defense. This year, he’s also trying to outlaw Internet gaming despite widespread support among most of the casino industry and states looking for new revenue.

This could make it difficult for Christie to gain Adelson’s support since New Jersey is one of three states that have legalized some form of Internet gaming. The other two states are Delaware and Nevada, which limited online gaming to poker.

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Find her on Twitter: @lmyerslvrj.

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