Audition for Adelson

The Republican megadonor has yet to decide whom he'll support

Las Vegas Sands Lawsuit
Sheldon Adelson and his wife spent more than $100 million on Republican candidates and causes in 2012.

Most Republicans who want to watch the presidential debate Tuesday will have to tune in to CNN. Billionaire Sheldon Adelson can just take the elevator from his office down to the show floor in his five-star Venetian Las Vegas hotel and casino.

One of the most generous and influential Republican megadonors in the country, Adelson, 82, has not picked a primary horse yet, and that may make him the most powerful person in the room on debate night. He has already met and auditioned most of the contenders one on one.

In 2012, Adelson and his wife, Miriam, spent more than $100 million on Republican candidates and causes, and they were the biggest donors in the presidential race.

Indeed, many Republicans blamed Adelson for pouring $15 million via a super PAC into the long-shot primary campaign of Newt Gingrich, financing a punishing television ad campaign against Mitt Romney that prevented the establishment favorite from locking up the Republican nomination in the early primary rounds.

Adelson has signaled that he wants to back a candidate who can win the general election for 2016, betting with his head instead of just his heart this time.

"He's being very careful this time, very strategic," said Jon Ralston, Nevada's leading political analyst, who publishes an online news site and hosts a show on public television. "He hasn't set a timetable, but he's told people he's going to see how the candidates do before committing."

Andy Abboud, chief political adviser to the casino mogul and his wife, did not respond to requests for comment. He told the Associated Press recently that the Adelsons were satisfied with several Republican candidates and "feel the primary process will work its way out."

Word in GOP circles is that Adelson leans to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a charismatic candidate who shares the mogul's passion for protecting Israel and for an aggressive U.S. approach in the Middle East.

But waiting until some votes are cast enables Adelson to steer clear if Rubio underperforms.

Adelson, whose net worth is estimated at $30 billion by Forbes, has emerged as a symbol of the new campaign-finance landscape that gives a handful of uber-wealthy the power to control campaigns.

"Candidates are now being chosen by a few billionaire kingmakers," said Daniel G. Newman, president and cofounder of MapLight, a Berkeley, Calif.-based nonprofit that tracks money in politics.

"Citizen voices are drowned out," he said, "and they can no longer choose the candidate who reflects their interests rather than the kingmakers' interests."

Friends say Adelson is passionate about one thing above all: Israel. He is a staunch ally of conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and owns a daily newspaper in the Jewish state. In addition, they say, Adelson supports mainstream conservative economic positions, such as low taxes, fewer regulations on business, and limits on union power. He is not motivated by the social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage that animate some on the GOP right; he never mentions them.

Such is Adelson's power that several campaigns last month fretted on a conference call with the Republican National Committee that they wanted to make sure Adelson would not use his block of tickets as Tuesday's debate host to pack the room for a favorite candidate. Both the RNC and Adelson's team have reassured them.

But Adelson already has had the 2016 candidates jumping through hoops. In the spring of 2014 and this year, he had some GOP contenders out to Las Vegas to meet with his network of contributors for several days of poker tournaments, speechifying, and private get-togethers.

Most of the candidates trooped Dec. 3 to the Republican Jewish Coalition forum in Washington. Adelson founded the pro-Israel group and contributes a major portion of its funding. The man himself was not among the hundreds in attendance.

Among the candidates, Donald Trump has stood up to Adelson, though in doing so he managed to offend some attendees at the RJC meeting. News reports say Trump also pitched Adelson for his support. Trump denies this.

"You're not going to support me even though you know I'm the best thing that could happen to Israel," Trump said at the Washington forum. "I know why you're not going to support me - because I don't want your money. You want to control your own politician."

The son of poor Jewish immigrants, Adelson grew up in a cramped apartment in the working-class Dorchester section of Boston. He later started a convention business with some partners that grew into the Sands casino company and pushed into Macau in China.

Adelson has fought online gaming. Rubio and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham - a favorite of Adelson's wife - have signed on to sponsor a Senate bill to ban the practice.

In New Jersey, Gov. Christie signed a bill in 2013 to legalize online gambling but was later accused of helping Adelson block an online-gambling company from moving into Atlantic City. Christie also drew fire for accepting the use of Adelson's plane to travel to the Middle East in 2012.

Adelson's interest in Israel is not linked to his business interests. "It's influence pure and simple," Newman said. "There's no evidence Mr. Adelson's activities in support of Israel help him economically, but candidates in the Republican Party are listening to him and aligning themselves with him if they hope to have any chance of getting some of his money."

Perhaps the most corrosive effect of big money is that Adelson and his ilk get more access than the average person, according to Newman and other campaign-finance critics.

"I'd like to be able to tell the president what the government's policies ought to be," Newman said, but he says he suspects the White House switchboard would not put his call through.

tfitzgerald@phillynews.com

215-854-2718@tomfitzgerald

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