WASHINGTON — The stage was set Thursday morning for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz to court powerful Republican Jewish voters over Middle Eastern policy. But immediately after the Texan wrapped up his remarks to the Republican Jewish Coalition, fellow GOP presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, took the stage and declared Cruz unelectable in a general election because of his stance on abortion.
“If the nominee of the Republican Party will not allow for an exception for rape and incest, they will not win," Graham said at the multi-candidate Republican Jewish Coalition event. "Ted Cruz doesn’t have an exception for rape or incest.”
Jewish Republicans form a key constituency within the GOP donor class; billionaire Sheldon Adelson of Las Vegas, for example, is a major Republican donor, and Jewish Republicans are a crucial voting bloc in places like South Florida.
A question-and-answer segment between a coalition member and Cruz set up the context for Graham's aggressive approach. Republican Jewish voters often find common ground with evangelical Christians in supporting Israel. But the question posed to Cruz was about a topic on which the two groups are less aligned: abortion.
Cruz framed his answer using a frequent stump speech point. He argued that the GOP will not win the White House without a massive evangelical turnout and that a strongly pro-life Republican nominee would lure Reagan Democrats — socially conservative Democrats who crossed party lines during the Reagan era — to the GOP cause.
"We should all look with a stone-cold seriousness at how we win," he said, positing that the past two GOP nominees, U.S. Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, were milquetoast candidates who depressed social conservative turnout.
"So, the trick is to speak in a way that energizes," he said.
Graham took the stage moments later. A close friend of McCain, Graham is in a struggle for relevancy in the campaign — he did not even qualify for the undercard round of the most recent GOP debate on Fox Business Network. But he's respected in the GOP establishment, and he raised concerns about Cruz that many Republicans voice only privately. Graham cut loose, calling the Texas senator out by name on immigration, the chaos in Syria and, most emphatically, on abortion.
Graham framed his point by stating he, too, is "pro-life." But he argued Cruz's far-conservative position plays into the Democratic Party's hands.
"He’s going to take the fight to the Democrats about their wanting to impose social policy on charitable organizations," Graham added, almost shouting. "It will be about rape."
"It will be about the nominee of the Republican Party telling a woman who’s been raped, 'You’ve got to carry the child of a rapist. Good luck with that.'”
A spokeswoman for Cruz's campaign declined to comment on Graham's remarks. The Houston Chronicle reported in 2012 that Cruz would "would allow abortion only in cases in which the mother’s life is in jeopardy."
In his opening remarks, Cruz addressed Wednesday's mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.
"At this point, the details of what happened in San Bernardino are still unclear, but our prayers are with the families of those who were murdered, of those who were shot."
He then implicitly pinned the blame on the president for the massacre.
"And all of us are deeply concerned that this is yet another manifestation of terrorism, radical Islamic terrorism, here at home," he said.
"Coming on the wake of the terror attack in Paris, this horrific murder underscores that we are at a time of war," he added. "Whether or not the current administration realizes it or is willing to acknowledge it, our enemies are at war with us, and I believe this nation needs a wartime president to defend it."
This was far from Cruz's first pitch to this group. He spoke at a Republican Jewish Coalition event in Las Vegas earlier this year, and he hosted a forum featuring author Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel in March.
Members of a pro-Israel group called NORPAC will host a fundraiser Thursday evening in Englewood, New Jersey, on Cruz's behalf.
Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.