By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidates rattled sabers against Iran and skewered President Barack Obama for being soft in his support for Israel on Wednesday as they vied for the backing of Jewish Republicans.
One by one, the major contenders for the Republican nomination to face the Democratic president in 2012 told the Republican Jewish Coalition they would strengthen ties with Israel and not let Iran develop a nuclear weapon.
Candidates took time out from criss-crossing Iowa, New Hampshire and other early voting states to seek Jewish support.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a front-running candidate, said "covert and overt" activities are needed to pressure Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Tehran denies trying to build a nuclear bomb but most of the world is suspicious.
"Ultimately, regime change is what's going to be necessary," said Romney, who received a standing ovation from the several hundred participants in the audience.
Former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who is trying to bite into Romney's lead in the key early state of New Hampshire, was equally tough.
"If you can't live with a nuclear Iran, and I can't, then you have to say all options are on the table," said Huntsman.
And former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, hoping to do well in Iowa, said: "I'd like to think we had something to do with" a recent explosion at a suspected Iranian missile site.
Jewish Americans traditionally support Democratic candidates, but Republicans hope to make headway in this critical voting bloc by targeting Obama's policy of pressuring Israel to make key compromises in the decades-old Middle East dispute with the Palestinians.
Obama angered the Israelis last May when he embraced a goal long sought by the Palestinians: that the state they seek in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip should largely be drawn along lines that existed before the 1967 war in which Israel captured those territories and East Jerusalem.
A theme throughout the speeches was the Republican desire to strengthen the U.S. commitment to Israel and ensure it remains a democratic bulwark in an unstable region threatened by the possibility of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon.
"I will travel to Israel on my first foreign trip. I will reaffirm as a vital national interest Israel's existence as a Jewish state. I want the world to know that the bonds between Israel and the United States are unshakable," Romney said.
(Reporting by Steve Holland; editing by Anthony Boadle)