Mitt Romney speaks via teleconference at the American Israel Public Affairs… (Pete Marovic / EPA )
Reporting from Washington — As voters in 10 states headed to polls and caucus sites on Super Tuesday, three of the four Republican presidential candidates stepped off the campaign trail to address a pro-Israel group meeting in Washington -- and blast President Obama's handling of Iran.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s conference comes at a time when relations between Israel and the United States are consumed by concerns that Iran could eventually build a nuclear weapon, a possibility that Israeli leaders – and Obama – have pledged to prevent. Iran maintains its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
The issue promises to be a topic of much discussion in the general election, as it has been at Republican debates. Obama addressed AIPAC on Sunday and offered a review of his administration's record supporting Israel "at every fork in the road," including during several diplomatic crises. As the situation with Iran moves forward, the president declared that he has “Israel’s back.”
Obama also said that "Iran's leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."
But that didn’t stop his Republican opponents from blasting the president as a weak ally to the Jewish state, although none called for a strategy all that different from Obama's assertion that Israel and the U.S. should use diplomacy with Iran if possible, but military force if necessary. The differences seemed to be that the GOP candidates wanted the U.S. to use stronger language in taking a stand against Iran.
Rick Santorum roused many to their feet when he accused Obama of turning his back on Israel.
“Under a Santorum administration, we would find no gap between Israel and the United States because our interests are united,” Santorum said.
Any delay on America's part from stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons encourages the Iranian government not to take America seriously, Santorum said. He said it's not "bellicosity and war mongering," but an effort to stop a nuclear-armed Iran.
"A nuclear Iran with a nuclear shield to project terror around the world is a nightmare for all freedom-loving people around the world," he said.
Mitt Romney chided the Obama administration for what he sees as a “clear message … to warn Israel to consider the costs of military action against Iran.”
Romney, too, drew applause from the crowd when he declared that, “as president, I will be ready to engage in diplomacy, but I will be just as ready to engage our military might.”
And Newt Gingrich promised that on his first day as president, he would move the American embassy to Jerusalem and would develop an American energy policy so that “no future president will ever again bow to a Saudi king.”
“In a Gingrich administration, we would not keep talking while the Iranians keep building,” Gingrich said. “We would indicate clearly that their failure to stop their program is in fact crossing a red line. The red line is not the morning the bomb goes off. The red line is not the morning our intelligence community tells us they’ve failed once again. The red line is now.”
Santorum reminded the crowd that he has for many years been suspicious of Iran.
When the country was exhausted by the Iraq war, Santorum spoke openly about the threat of Iran, campaigning in his 2006 Senate reelection effort in Pennsylvania about the peril of "Islamic fascism." He told the AIPAC crowd that he warned Pennsylvania voters six years ago that soon they'd know the name "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad" and be able to pronounce it.
But of the three candidates, it was Romney whose appearance at AIPAC seemed most anticipated: He was the only candidate who took questions from a panel of questioners after delivering his remarks.
Gingrich, who seemed to expect a Q&A panel, kept his prepared remarks brief, only to be informed after he’d turned to take questions that no such panel had been assembled for him. Gingrich kept talking.
“We need a fundamental reassessment of our entire understanding of the threat of radical Islam,” he said. “We need an administration with the courage to use the word ‘radical Islam.'”
Texas Rep. Ron Paul was the only GOP presidential candidate who did not address AIPAC. Paul’s insistence that Iran is not a threat and his fierce opposition to using or threatening to use force against the country has put him at odds with supporters of Israel.
Washington bureau reporters Colby Itkowitz of the Morning Call and Michael A. Memoli contributed to this report.