By Farah Master
MACAU (Reuters) - Top Republican Party donor Sheldon Adelson said on Friday he met presidential candidate Donald Trump earlier this week and that the two American billionaires broached the issue at the heart of Adelson's political agenda: support for Israel.
While the mega donor didn't disclose his degree of backing for the front-runner in the race for the Republican nomination, he did say he found Trump to be "very charming" and called his standing in the crowded candidate field "unheard of."
"It was very nice," the gambling tycoon told Reuters in a rare interview in Macau when asked if he had met Trump, who leads in opinion polls of Republican voters. "He was very charming."
Hours later, Trump returned the compliment to Adelson, telling Reuters, "Sheldon and I have been friends for a long time. He is an amazing man. I am the only one who doesn't need his money. But I would love his support."
On the subject of Israel, Trump added, "Sheldon knows that nobody will be more loyal to Israel than Donald Trump."
The meeting and Trump's pro-Israel stance - coming after more ambiguous remarks a few weeks ago - could pave the way for a deeper relationship between the two men, a month and a half before the first Republican nominating contest in Iowa.
Israel is, by far, the most important issue to Adelson, a fierce supporter of the nation and close friend of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Adelson also owns the newspaper with the largest circulation in Israel, a free daily.
The 82-year-old chief executive of Las Vegas Sands Corp , the world's biggest gambling company by market value, made his comments a few days after hosting the latest debate among Republican Party presidential candidates at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, where and his Israeli-born wife, Miriam, an accomplished medical doctor and philanthropist, live.
Adelson said much of his discussion with Trump was about Israel.
"He (Trump) had talked about potentially dividing Jerusalem and Israel, so I talked about Israel because with our newspaper, my wife being Israeli, we are the few who know more about Israel than people who don't," Adelson said.
Courted by most of the Republican candidates and widely expected to be the party's top donor in the November 2016 presidential election, Adelson said earlier on Friday during a news conference that he may wait until February's primaries to decide who to back. He described the field of Republican candidates as "all very good".
RECOVERING FROM A MISSTEP
Some 14 candidates are still in the race for the Republican Party nomination. The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll showed Trump leading the field with support of 31 percent of Republican voters, followed by Texas Senator Ted Cruz at 17 percent, pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson at 13 percent, Florida Senator Marco Rubio at eight percent and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush at seven percent.
"We like a lot of the candidates, some more than the others," Adelson said during the interview in Macau, the world's largest gambling hub, ahead of the formal opening of his new St. Regis hotel in the former Portuguese colony,
"It's changing every day. I saw in the news today that Trump said his percentage approval was 41 percent. Out of 14 candidates, 41 percent is unheard of."
Asked what characteristics he would like the Republican party's nominee to embody, Adelson said, "They have got to be able to win."
Trump's brash, off-the-cuff style has not dented his popularity, despite predictions to the contrary. But on Israel, he did find himself in trouble two weeks ago, and he also angered prominent Jewish leaders with his comments on Muslims.
Speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition in Washington, Trump wavered in answering a question about whether he would consider Jerusalem the undivided capital of Israel, drawing boos from the crowd.
Palestinians want East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, for their future state. Israel regards all of Jerusalem as its indivisible capital, a claim not recognized internationally.
A week after Trump spoke to the gathering of Jewish leaders, and in the wake of a shooting by two Muslim radicals in California that killed 14, Trump proposed barring all foreign Muslims from entering the United States. His call drew the immediate ire of some prominent Jewish Republicans.
Trump does, however, have deep ties to the Jewish community. He is the only presidential candidate who lives, makes deals and hobnobs among some of the world's most prominent Jewish power figures on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
He's also the only Republican candidate with Jewish grandkids: his daughter, Ivanka, became Orthodox after marrying real estate scion Jared Kushner. The family keeps kosher, observes the Sabbath and attends the upscale synagogue Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun.
BUYS LAS VEGAS NEWSPAPER
In Macau, Adelson also made his first public comments confirming his family's acquisition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal newspaper.
The $140 million deal to buy the largest paper in the state of Nevada, an important swing state, had been shrouded in secrecy.
Described by Forbes magazine as the 15th richest man in the United States, Adelson said his family had bought the paper as a financial investment, dismissing speculation the deal was aimed at controlling media in the United States.
"The Review-Journal is already on my side of the political spectrum," Adelson said.
"This newspaper has been making money...we left the (everyday) operation in the hands of the owner from who we bought it."
"We are not going to hire an editor, we left it up to them (current management), period. We may take some of the positive characteristics of our Israeli newspaper and add them to there but that's all just suggestions."
(Additional reporting by Michelle Conlin in New York; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree, Kenneth Maxwell, Howard Goller and Mary Milliken)