Donald J. Trump and Ben Carson may not have reduced doubts about their seriousness as leaders and their understanding of global affairs on Thursday as they delivered meandering speeches to one of the country’s most influential Republican Jewish organizations.
Mr. Carson, who has been trying to reverse perceptions that he does not have substantive knowledge about foreign policy, repeatedly mispronounced the name of the militant Palestinian group Hamas as he rushed through a prepared script before the Republican Jewish Coalition. He kept calling it something that sounded more like hummus.
Mr. Trump, whose remarks about Hispanics, Muslims and African-Americans have led to allegations of bigotry, littered his speech with jokes about money and what good negotiators Jews were supposed to be.
“I don’t want your money; therefore, you’re probably not going to support me,” he said, drawing blank stares from a crowd that at one point greeted his remarks with boos.
It was an event with a heavily Jewish audience but no Jewish speakers, and there were plenty of attempts by the candidates to telegraph their affinity for the religion. Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio, recalling his mother’s advice: “If you want to look for a really good friend, get somebody who’s Jewish.” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina: “I may have the first all-Jewish cabinet.” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas: “We are facing a moment like Munich in 1938.”
The gathering was intended to serve as a forum for Republican presidential candidates to engage in a high-minded discussion on Israel and the role of the United States in an increasingly dangerous world.
And while there were many serious and alarming assessments of national security from the candidates, the event quickly veered from sober to surreal.
Mr. Carson, who has ad-libbed his way into several controversies during the campaign, began with a lighthearted warning that he would “actually be using a script.”
“It may be the first time anybody has seen me doing that,” he said.
He rushed through his words and rarely broke from the prepared text to make eye contact with his audience. His speech — part basic history lesson on the Middle East and part observational narrative with his own take on the underpinnings of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — was full of generalities from a candidate who has been criticized for not being well-versed in foreign policy.
“The world is complicated; the Middle East is even more complicated,” he said at one point.
He read through an array of disparate topics, from circumcision to John Quincy Adams’s support for a Jewish homeland to his own recent trip to Israel, during which he said he feared he might be shot.
“I actually had a chance to go into some of those tunnels when I was there last year,” he said, referring to the passages that Palestinian terrorists use to mount assaults against Israel. “Although we were carefully looking for people who might be trying to shoot us when we came out.”
The audience received him politely.
The reception for Mr. Trump was not always so cordial. He was jeered after he would not answer a question about whether Jerusalem should be split in two.
“I want to wait until I meet with Bibi,” he said, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. When the objections from the crowd grew louder, he snapped at one of his hecklers. “Who’s the wiseguy?” he asked, gesturing to someone near the front. “Do me a favor. Just relax. You’ll like me very much.”
In an attempt at humor, he brought up the stereotype of Jewish people as hard-nosed negotiators.
“Is there anyone that doesn’t renegotiate deals in this room?” he said as he was outlining how he would drive a hard bargain with America’s adversaries. Then he answered his own question. “Perhaps more than any room I’ve ever spoken to.”
That line drew some hearty laughs. But three times, he came back to the subject of money. “Stupidly, you want to give money,” he said. “Trump doesn’t want money.”
Ari Fleischer, a board member with the Republican Jewish Coalition and George W. Bush’s former press secretary, said Mr. Trump seemed to be implying “the only thing you guys in this audience want is to own a candidate.”
“It’s not about him taking our money,” he added. “To think it’s about money and influence is a fundamental misreading of voters, especially this audience.”
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Mr. Trump also used the event and its focus on Islamic radicalism to return to a subject he had appeared to let go: the question of President Obama’s heritage. Insisting that the president refused to identify radical Islam’s influence on terrorism, Mr. Trump said: “He refuses to use the term. There’s something going on with him that we don’t know about.”
Some in the crowd applauded.
When the focus was on the seriousness of Wednesday’s events in San Bernardino, Calif, where 14 people died in a shooting rampage, other candidates took turns explaining how they would combat terrorists and help repair America’s relationship with Israel. Some directly linked the shootings in San Bernardino to global terror. Others hinted at the possible ties more generally because the facts were still coming in. But they all insisted that the Obama administration bore responsibility for not taking America’s enemies seriously enough.
“This horrific murder underscores that we are in a time of war — whether or not the current administration realizes or is willing to acknowledge it,” Mr. Cruz told the crowd. “We need a president who will call the enemy by its name: radical Islamic terrorism. And we will defeat it.”
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida characterized threats from Iran, the Islamic State and Palestinian radicals as a common, dangerous strain of fundamentalism that knows no borders.
“This enemy hates our two nations — both liberal democracies, both products of the Judeo-Christian tradition,” he said. “We must not separate the threat to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv from the threat to Paris or London or New York or Miami.”
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey insisted, “Everyplace in America is a target,” adding, “We need to come to grips with the idea that we are in the midst of the next world war.”
Jeb Bush said of global terrorists, “They have declared war on us, and we need to declare war on them.”
Asked at the end of his remarks how his parents were doing, Mr. Bush acknowledged there had been something utterly perplexing to his father, former President George Bush.
“It’s hard for a guy like that to understand the Trump phenomenon,” Jeb Bush said.
The New York Times