WASHINGTON Republican presidential candidates on Wednesday rattled sabers against Iran and accused President Barack Obama of being soft in his support for Israel as they vied for the backing of Jewish Republicans.
One by one, the major contenders for the Republican nomination to face the Democratic president in 2012 told the Republican Jewish Coalition conference they would strengthen ties with Israel and not let Iran develop a nuclear weapon.
Candidates took time out from criss-crossing Iowa, New Hampshire and other early voting states to seek Jewish support, hoping to make inroads into a traditionally Democratic voting bloc.
A theme throughout the speeches was the Republican desire to strengthen the U.S. commitment to Israel and ensure it remains a democratic bulwark in an unstable region threatened by the possibility of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a front-running candidate, said "covert and overt" activities are needed to pressure Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Tehran denies trying to build a nuclear bomb but most of the world is suspicious.
"Ultimately, regime change is what's going to be necessary," said Romney, who received a standing ovation from the several hundred participants in the audience.
Former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who is trying to bite into Romney's lead in the key early state of New Hampshire, was equally tough.
"If you can't live with a nuclear Iran, and I can't, then you have to say all options are on the table," said Huntsman.
Front-runner Newt Gingrich said the only rational policy toward Iran should be "regime replacement." He said if elected he would pursue covert missions aimed at disrupting Iranian gasoline supplies. And he would fund "every dissident group" in Iran.
Representative Michele Bachmann said, "The Pentagon must prepare a war plan" for Iran in case it needed.
Candidates interpreted a speech last week given by Obama's defense secretary, Leon Panetta, as a sign of Obama's pressure on Israel. Panetta on Friday urged Israel to get back to the "damn" negotiating table with Palestinians and take steps to address what he described as the Jewish state's growing isolation in the Middle East
"This torrent of hostility toward Israel, it doesn't seem to be coordinated," said candidate Rick Perry. "It seems to be a natural expression of this administration's attitude toward Israel."
Jewish Americans usually support Democratic candidates, but Republicans hope to make headway with this critical voting bloc by targeting Obama's policy of pressuring Israel to make key compromises in the decades-old Middle East dispute with the Palestinians.
Obama angered the Israelis last May when he embraced a goal long sought by the Palestinians: that the state they seek in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip should largely be drawn along lines that existed before the 1967 war in which Israel captured those territories and East Jerusalem.
"I will travel to Israel on my first foreign trip. I will reaffirm as a vital national interest Israel's existence as a Jewish state. I want the world to know that the bonds between Israel and the United States are unshakable," Romney said.
(Editing By Anthony Boadle and Cynthia Osterman)