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A ‘Personal,’ International Trip in High Campaign Season

As election season shifts into fever pitch, Carly Fiorina returned from Israel last week. And her trip was … personal?

That’s what her aide told the L.A. Times before she left. But unless you’re, say, Madonna, personal trips generally don’t involve meetings with VIPs like Tzipi Livni, Shimon Peres, and Benjamin Netanyahu, right?

Fiorina, the Republican candidate facing incumbent Jewish Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer for a California U.S. Senate seat, traveled to Israel for four days. The trip was funded and organized by the Republican Jewish Coalition. She returned just as the Rasmussen Reports released a new poll that gave her 48% of the vote, putting her one percentage point ahead of Boxer.

What separates the personal from the political? “It’s personal—that means it’s not political,” answered Matthew Brooks, the executive director of the RJC, who helped organize Fiorina’s trip. He elaborated: “It’s not about her campaign or winning votes. It was not open to the press. There were no campaign activities or politicking. It was strictly an educational trip for her and her husband, and their opportunity to visit a city that’s important for them to visit.”

It seemed an odd time for a personal trip: Fiorina had just emerged from a debate with Boxer. Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard CEO, has come under fire from pro-Israel groups for HP’s shipments to Iran during her leadership there. (Fiorina has criticized Boxer for her alleged silence on Iran’s threat; Boxer’s campaign rebutted that claim, pointing to Boxer’s Iran statements). And Fiorina is now running neck-and-neck against a Jewish senator.

Some Jewish political insiders aren’t so sure. “Personal?” asked Doug Bloomfield, who has worked as AIPAC’s legislative director. “That’s bubbe meises, pure and unadulterated bubbe meises” – in other words, “grandmother tales” or nonsense. There is no difference, he said, between personal and political — not during a campaign, at least. At AIPAC, Bloomfield said, he shepherded several candidates through similar trips. Their purposes, he said, were to establish a relationship between a politician and the organization; for education; and “for the politician to establish bona fides” and claim credibility.

Senator John McCain and then-Senator Barack Obama took similar trips through Israel in 2008. Ten years before that, George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, traveled there as well – on the first such itinerary organized by the RJC, Brooks said. This cycle, Brooks said RJC also played travel agent to Pat Meehan, candidate for Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District.

The word personal, according to M.J. Rosenberg, a former AIPAC operator turned Media Matters Action Network fellow, only means that the costs didn’t come from the campaign’s budget. He dismissed the notion the trip was unrelated to vote-seeking. “Everything she now does has to do with vote-seeking,” he said.

But Rosenberg doubted the trip would help much. “It’s just inoculation,” Rosenberg said, “to show she’s just as pro-Israel as this long-time established pro-Israel Jewish lady.”

Fiorina’s campaign declined to comment on the trip.

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