LAS VEGAS, N.V. – The packed ballroom at the Republican Jewish Coalition stood and cheered when Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley took the stage. Tim Scott, intertwining his Christian faith with a call to swiftly bring Hamas and its supporters to justice, revved the crowd up during his 22-minute remarks.
But when Donald Trump arrived – entering to his usual “God Bless the USA” introduction song – the applause was louder, and more sustained. Roughly 30 minutes later, after a speech where the former president touted his record on defending Israel, slammed President Joe Biden’s policies in the region, and broadly declared, without explaining how, that a number of issues “would never have happened” if he were still in the Oval Office, the uphill battle facing his opponents remained clear.
“Four straight years, I kept America safe. I kept Israel safe, and I kept the world safe,” Trump said at one point to cheers. “If I were president, the attack on Israel would never, ever have happened.”
It didn’t seem to matter to the crowd of around 1,000 that Trump had, just weeks ago, been widely panned for calling Hezbollah “very smart” and for his criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Nor did it seem to raise eyebrows when, during his speech Saturday afternoon, the former president suggested he’d have been able to get Iran into the Abraham Accords had he been elected in 2020.
“He’s not saying it as a compliment, he’s saying ‘this is the reality of who we’re dealing with. Wake up,’” Las Vegas resident Kim Snyder, a retired Trump supporter, told Semafor of Trump’s recent remarks about Hezbollah. And, while she did describe the Netanyahu criticism as a “misstep,” it didn’t change her decision to back him.
In contrast to last year’s event, where candidates jumped between a number of political topics, this year’s speeches honed in almost exclusively on Israel. Just weeks after the deadly terrorist attack in the country, the RJC event took on outsized importance – even Trump, who opted for a virtual speech the year before, flew in for an on-the-ground appearance this year.
Haley, fighting for second place with DeSantis, spent a part of her speech issuing sharp jabs at her former boss – and even warned the crowd against what a second Trump administration would bring.
“As president, I will not compliment Hezbollah, nor will I criticize Israel’s prime minister in the middle of tragedy and war,” Haley said, later asking the crowd, “What will he do in the future?”
In another notable moment, Haley linked Ukraine to Israel, warning attendees that “those who would abandon Ukraine today are at risk of abandoning Israel tomorrow.”
Mike Pence, who used the event to make a surprise announcement about the end of his campaign, also pushed against Trump’s appeal, urging voters in the audience to “give our country a Republican standard-bearer that will, as Lincoln said, appeal to the better angels of our nature.” He, like Haley, sought to push against the “new populist movement in the Republican Party” — Pence described it as one that calls for the U.S. to “retreat from her leadership position.”
“Let me say from my heart, anyone who says that America cannot solve our problems at home and be the leader of the free world, there’s a pretty small view of the greatest nation that we have. We must and we will do both for the sake of America, Israel and the world,” Pence told the crowd.
While Trump seemed to dominate at the RJC overall, some of those criticisms that Trump’s opponents have spent months lobbing over at him are landing among voters. Unlike last year, many attendees seem to have zeroed in on their preferred candidate (or candidates). In doing so, they revealed cracks (however small) in the foundation of Trump’s support.
“I like Trump as far as him keeping his promises, but he doesn’t know how to shut his mouth. His ego is bigger than his head, and I don’t think he’s electable,” 77-year-old Barry Woroner said, adding that he thinks Haley “could do a great job.”
Dr. Eli Ben-Moshe, who co-founded a group dedicated to fighting anti-semitism, also argued that while “Trump has done his time and been absolutely great,” he had concerns because of the former president’s divisiveness.
“I think Nikki Haley would be an amazing first American woman president, not because she’s a woman, but because she’s freaking good,” he said. “Ron has done great for us, I’m not sure he’s quite ready yet, but he’s a great friend as well.”