WASHINGTON >> Moments after making remarks in Jerusalem about Middle East culture that enraged Palestinians and undermined the public relations value of his trip to Israel, Mitt Romney looked around the room for Dan Senor, one of his campaign’s top foreign policy advisers.
It was Senor’s book about entrepreneurs in Israel that informed his comments, Romney explained to the group of Jewish-American donors he had assembled at the King David hotel. The book, “Start-up Nation,” is among Senor’s writings that Romney frequently cites in public.
Senor (pronounced See-NOR) has become one of the key people shaping Romney’s increasingly hawkish views on Israel. A television-savvy former spokesman for the U.S. government in Iraq, Senor’s foreign policy background, high-volume punditry and ties to wealthy hedge fund investors in the United States has helped make him a triple threat as an insider in Romney’s presidential campaign.
His presence in the tight orbit of advisers around the Republican candidate foreshadows a Romney foreign policy that could take a harder line against Iran, embrace Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move away from being the honest broker in the conflict with Palestinians.
But his views and influence have drawn new scrutiny to Romney’s Mideast positions, particularly after Senor said last week that Romney respected Israel’s right to pre-emptively strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. Campaign aides conceded that Senor got “a little ahead” of Romney on Iran, but said it had not diminished his role at the campaign.
“Dan is a long-term friend and adviser of Mitt,” said Beth Myers, one of Romney’s top strategists. “He’s consistently been a part of his foreign policy advising world. Mitt appreciated his advice and counsel on that trip and he remains a close adviser.”
By tapping Senor, 40, as his principal adviser on the Israel leg of his foreign trip this week, Romney passed over more seasoned strategists, some of them veterans of the complicated and fraught Middle East peace efforts that have bedeviled presidents and diplomats for decades.
In Senor, Romney turned to an advocate of neoconservative thinking that has sought to push presidents to the right for years on Middle East policy. (His sister, Wendy Senor Singer, runs the Jerusalem office of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential lobbying organization.)
“Mr. Senor is a pragmatic hawk who clearly has an acute sensitivity and sensibility toward Israeli security interests,” said Aaron David Miller, a former adviser to Democratic and Republican secretaries of state. “That’s clearly a filter through which he, and should he get to be president, Romney, sees the whole panoply of issues in the Middle East.”
The plan for Romney’s overseas trip called for him to mix delicate global diplomacy with high-dollar campaign fundraising, all on foreign soil. It would take an adviser accustomed to maneuvering effortlessly through the worlds of politics, money and media.
Enter Senor, who has become one of Romney’s closest foreign policy advisers, having traveled three times to Israel with him. Senor began visiting Boston in 2006 to brief Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, on foreign policy, and has had his ear since. In the acknowledgments of his book, “No Apology,” Romney wrote that Senor sharpened his “appreciation of the dangers presented by the shift in our foreign policy.”
Senor declined to comment for this article.
But in Israel last week, the carefully laid plan was quickly consumed by negative attention. Gushing comments about Romney by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were initially overshadowed by Senor’s comments to reporters about Iran. When that died down, Romney’s assertion that cultural factors helped account for the wide Israeli economic edge over the Palestinians drew condemnation from Palestinian leaders.
For all the furor, Senor has proved to be a resilient public figure, often finding new success after public criticism.
At the start of the Iraq war, Senor served as the spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, often delivering rosy accounts of the war’s progress to reporters whose on-the-ground view of the crisis there was anything but. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a Washington Post reporter who wrote a critical book about the authority, once described Senor’s office as doing “a masterful job of spinning the media.”
Senor’s departure from Iraq was followed by a stint running a private equity firm that made him wealthy. He married Campbell Brown, a former anchor for CNN, formed a conservative research organization and secured invitations to appear on Fox News and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program.
“He is intrigued by the game of politics,” said William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard and a longtime friend. “But he is genuinely public spirited.”
Romney’s relationship with Senor began just after his honeymoon in 2006, when Myers asked if he would meet with Romney, then a likely presidential candidate.
Before long, Senor was regularly visiting Boston for briefings and setting up visits by other foreign policy hawks in Washington. He accompanied Romney to Israel in January 2007 and went with him on a trip to Afghanistan, Jordan, Israel and Dubai last year.
“I believe they are genuinely close and personal,” Kristol said.
Perhaps the best evidence of that is the frequency with which Romney talks about Senor’s book. Acquaintances of both men said Romney frequently mentions it. The slim book argues that Israel’s entrepreneurial spirit contributes to its success — a message that resonates with Romney’s background in business.
“He goes through some of the cultural elements that have led Israel to become a nation that has begun so many businesses and so many enterprises,” Romney said at his Jerusalem fundraiser.
Looking around a room filled with wealthy Americans, including Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate who has donated tens of millions of dollars to Republicans, Romney noted Senor’s absence and his success at hitting such people up for campaign cash.
“I saw him this morning. I don’t know where he is,” Romney said. “He’s probably out twisting someone’s arm.”