On the heels of a heated television debate with Sen. Barbara Boxer last night, Carly Fiorina is flying to Israel for the long weekend. Her campaign describes the visit as a "personal trip" and not a political statement. The Republican Jewish Coalition, which is sponsoring the trip, declined to comment on it or release Fiorina's schedule, saying the trip was private.
But scheduled as it is -- the day after President Obama began peace talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and just two months before Election Day -- Fiorina's trip is clearly intended to send a message. Unlike Boxer, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has strong ties to pro-Israel groups, Fiorina lacks foreign policy credibility. Though she's traveled personally and for business, she does not have the international authority of a three-term senator.
In addition its intended optics, Fiorina's trip is likely an appeal to Jewish and evangelical voters, both of whom are often hawkishly pro-Israel. California's political system relies heavily on influential Jewish donors in Los Angeles, so Fiorina may be hoping to rack up some contributions.
Well-timed trips to Jerusalem and meetings with Israeli leaders are a common trick for politicians, especially those running for president. Barack Obama made a well-publicized tour of the region in July of 2008, an important move in his challenge to John McCain's elder-statesman persona. McCain had touted his loyalty to Israel during his 2000 primary race against George W. Bush, though Joe Lieberman helped deliver 79 percent of the Jewish vote to Al Gore in the general.
Scott Gartner, a professor of political science and the director of international relations at UC Davis, cites former Rep. Charlie Wilson's play for the pro-Israel lobby -- despite the fact that he didn't need Jewish votes. "He's in Texas, and he has no Jewish constituents -- really, I think he has three or something," Gartner says. "But he goes to Israel all the time and raises tremendous amounts of money from pro-Israeli lobbies throughout the U.S."
For some candidates, however, efforts to craft a worldly or hawkish image can backfire. Gartner recalls the infamous photograph of then-Gov. Michael Dukakis swimming in his helmet while riding a tank during his 1988 campaign. "He looked like a bobblehead," Gartner says. The photo op was supposed to portray Dukakis as tough on defense, but it ended up making him look inept. "These trips can have blowback," Gartner warns. "There could be random events or occurrences that could make this a problematic trip for [Fiorina.]"
If the former HP CEO is indeed courting Jewish voters and donors, she's fighting an uphill battle. Boxer is one of the staunchest pro-Israel advocates in the Senate and has long enjoyed a good relationship with the Israel lobby. As of August 22, Boxer had received a total of $15,000 this campaign cycle from the National Action Committee and the World Alliance for Israel, two of the nation's largest pro-Israel PACs. In May, Boxer teamed with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to circulate a letter to Sec. Hillary Clinton rebuking her for a confrontational stance toward Israel.
Graeme Boushey, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University, suggests an alternative or additional motive for Fiorina's trip. "A few years ago, Gavin Newsom took a trip to Israel to build bridges with the growing Israel hi tech industry," Boushey wrote in an email. "I haven't seen Fiorina's itinerary, but it is possible that she is interested in expanding trade opportunities between CA industry and Israel." Since Fiorina's campaign also refused to comment on her itinerary, this motive is pure speculation. But it would play into Fiorina's innovation and jobs-focused message, and it could potentially help counter Boxer's reminders of HP's history of outsourcing jobs during Fiorina's watch.