DES MOINES, Iowa – Working a small crowd at a kosher deli, Rick Perry glanced up at a mural on the wall.
“That’s right out of the King David Hotel window!” he said of the world-famous Jerusalem hotel, to knowing laughter.
The event, organized by Jewish Republicans, is one of the last stops on Perry's weekend swing through central Iowa. Perry on Monday presented himself to the group as a man of the world — one who toured Israel and Auschwitz as governor and remains friendly with foreign leaders.
As about 15 men listened around a table, Perry described his efforts to open a Texas A&M University campus in Nazareth.
“Bibi [Netanyahu] was very much in favor of this,” he said, referencing the Israeli prime minister colloquially. Perry added that there are no other outside campuses in Israel, and “the Knesset has to change the law."
“It’s a great opportunity for Texas and Israel to even build a closer tie,” he added.
That’s the tone Perry struck over the last few days. At times, he’s been fiercely critical of President Obama. But he has frequently urged his audiences to “respect” the commander in chief — going after Obama with specific examples versus red meat.
“I think it’s really important to have a leader – and when I’m talking about a leader, I’m talking about the White House — who not only sees [the Israeli-American relationship] for what it is but expresses it,” Perry said.
Alluding to an October Atlantic story on U.S.-Israel relations, Perry added that “unnamed administration sources taking, really, cheap shots at the prime minister, that is a problem.”
“It starts at the top,” he added.
In his remarks, Perry also described his experience touring the Auschwitz concentration camp during an October trip to Poland, pausing at times when overcome with emotion.
“The trip to Auschwitz … it’s like having the president come to the border of Texas and Mexico,” he said. “If you’ve never really seen what’s going on, it’s hard to get your arms" around it.
He said a human hair exhibit at the concentration camp “had the most vivid, powerful impact on me.”
Perry also touched on issues beyond Israel. His stump speech was a pitch to conservatives that, as governor for 14 years, he was able to build his economic and foreign policy resume.
Much like his stop in nearby Indianola on Sunday night, he found a receptive but cautious audience.
“What Gov. Perry has working for him is the fact that while everyone can say they champion these ideas, he’s actually … produced results,” said Shane Lesko, a Christian with Jewish heritage.
Lesko is a Republican operative based in Sioux City, Iowa. He was in town for the Iowa Freedom Summit on Saturday. Like other Iowa Republicans, he said, he's still waiting for Perry to earn his vote.
“I don’t think it would be fair to Iowa or myself to join up this early," he said, "especially since he hasn’t even declared yet.”