Presidential candidates’ Jewish surrogates debate in Virginia

FAIRFAX, Va. (JTA) — Prominent Jewish surrogates for President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney tackled domestic issues and foreign affairs during a cordial debate in Northern Virginia.

Former Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), representing Obama, faced off against Dov Zakheim, an under secretary of defense under President George W. Bush, on issues such as Israel, national security, jobs and women’s issues.

The approximately 150 audience members at the Northern Virginia Jewish Community Center Wednesday night appeared evenly divided in their support of the two candidates. At one point, many in the audience broke into applause when Zakheim criticized Obama for not having visited Israel as president.

“Why hasn’t he visited it in three-and-a-quarter years? I just don’t get it,” Zakheim said.

Wexler countered that it was rare for U.S. presidents to travel to Israel during their first terms, noting that while George W. Bush visited Israel twice, both trips took place in the last year of his second term.

Throughout the evening, Wexler portrayed Obama as a strong supporter of Israel who continually provides that country with weapons and financial assistance and is there when Israel needs help. He specifically noted Obama’s efforts to stop the Palestinian Authority from unilaterally declaring statehood and his call to the Egyptian government when the Israeli Embassy was being stormed by rioters.

But Zakheim countered that Israel needed an American president who would chart a different course in the Middle East.

“You’ve got to think of the whole Middle East, not just Israel,” he said, noting that if elected, Romney’s approach would be peace through strength.

“You can’t have credibility unless you are strong, and Mr. Romney knows that,” his surrogate said.

The two surrogates spelled out the different positions of their candidates on many issues. Romney would arm the Syrian rebels and set the same red line as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Iran’s efforts to obtain nuclear weapons, Zakheim said.

On social issues, Wexler noted Obama’s support for abortion rights, same-sex marriage and a more liberal approach to immigration.

Zakheim replied that Romney would be more focused on creating jobs than dealing with social issues.

“I agree the economy is the No. 1 issue on most people’s minds. I am not sure Roe v. Wade is,” Zakheim said. “Roe v. Wade is not going to solve the deficit problem.”

Zakheim said that it was time to stop blaming the Bush administration for the state of the economy and instead to work to stimulate job growth.

Wexler defined Obama’s position on budget issues as a balanced approach in which there are “reductions and income enhancements.”

The two surrogates differed on the defense budget, with Zakheim saying, “I don’t think defense should be held hostage to anything.” Wexler countered that cuts were needed to help balance the budget.

The event was sponsored by The Israel Project and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. Virginia is considered a key swing state.

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