Courting powerful Jewish donors for the second time in two months, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called Sunday for a more aggressive foreign policy that defends American values abroad, but he also said he is concerned about the direction America is heading in.
"The rest of the world watches in desperation and hope that America will realize and act upon once again its indispensable place in the world," Christie, a prospective Republican presidential contender, said in a keynote address Sunday at the Champions of Jewish Values International awards gala in New York. "We must lead."
He charged that America must represent the strongest military and economic power, but also "the strongest moral power for what is good and what is right in the world."
“We see Russian activism once again rearing its head in the world, we see an America that backed away from a commitment made by the president of the United States in Syria, we see a country, our country, permitting even a thought of a terrorist state like Iran having nuclear capability,” Christie said. “It's unthinkable that the America that has led in the way that it has always led this world would permit that to happen. Yet we are sitting in a world, we are watching the vacuum that the lack of American leadership has created being filled and it is almost never filled by virtue, it is almost always filled by evil.”
The appearance offered Christie a second chance to impress deep-pocketed Jewish donors after stumbling in a recent speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition. Sunday's event also featured Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and major political donor Sheldon Adelson.
The gathering comes as donors — none bigger than Adelson — begin to size up the crowded field of potential Republican presidential candidates ahead of the 2016 contest. While billed as a nonpartisan affair, there were political references throughout the evening.
Asked if he was running for president, Perry told reporters: "I'm being governor for the next nine months. To be real honest with you I don't know what I'm gonna do after that."
Christie did not talk about his own presidential prospects in a speech that offered aggressive rhetoric but few specifics. He didn't mention Israel, but insisted that America's leaders must send "clear and consistent signals" to those nations it supports and those it doesn't while promoting America's values.
"We need to stand once again loudly for these values," he said. "And sometimes that's going to mean standing in some very messy, difficult places. Standing long and hard for those things that we believe in."
He added: "We will either lead or disappoint. Those are the only two choices. Unfortunately, today, in my opinion, America is disappointing. But it's not too late."
Christie was seated at the same table as Adelson, who figures to play a prominent role in the selection of the next Republican presidential nominee. It was their second meeting over the last two months.
At a Las Vegas gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition in late March, Adelson met with Christie and several other possible Republican contenders: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
At the time, Christie, a Catholic, said he was overwhelmed by displays of religious tolerance during a recent trip to Jerusalem.
"I took a helicopter ride from occupied territories across ... and just felt, personally, how extraordinary that was to understand the military risk that Israel faces every day," Christie said.
The comment about "occupied territories" drew sharp criticism from some in the audience. The Israeli government and by extension most of Israel's supporters in the U.S. don't consider the West Bank and East Jerusalem to be occupied territory.
After the speech, Christie met privately with Adelson to explain that he misspoke.
With a net worth estimated at nearly $40 billion, Adelson may be the Republican Party's most influential donor. He is known for his devotion to Israel, in addition to an aggressive American foreign policy.
Adelson donated more than $90 million to Republican candidates and their allies in the 2012 election.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.