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One of the defining elements of the 2012 presidential campaign is money. Not that the candidates themselves have raised all that much; except for President Obama, they haven't. But two dozen wealthy Americans have put in at least $1 million each.
Mostly, they're a mix of Wall Street financiers and entrepreneurs. One of the biggest donors is Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate who is worth about $25 billion.
Since January, he has put more than $10 million into the superPAC backing Newt Gingrich. And that money has kept Gingrich's presidential hopes alive when the candidate's own campaign was out of cash.
Why is Adelson doing this? He sees Gingrich as the guy who can get what Adelson wants for Israel. For Adelson, Israel is a personal cause.
"It's because of my father, who never came to Israel and he always wanted to do so but couldn't. And then when he could do so, he was too old and too sick," Adelson said in a video for Birthright Israel, a charity that flies thousands of Jewish teenagers and young adults to the Jewish state every year from all over the world. "So I want to see the young people come and experience Israel before they get too old and too sick."
Adelson has given Birthright Israel tens of millions of dollars.
The casino tycoon grew up poor in Dorchester, Mass. His parents were immigrants. His father drove a cab.
"When I was 12, I bought my first business," said Adelson, who started out selling newspapers on the street. He told the story four years ago, in a videotaped court deposition.
"You know, you hold the newspaper in your hand and say, 'Hey, get your Daily Record.' We would yell that out. We would hawk newspapers," Adelson said.
By age 16, he had bought his second business — vending machines. And he kept on selling — packages of toiletries, spray cans of windshield de-icer. He ran a tour business and got into venture capital.
Then, early in the personal-computer era, he bought the computer expo called Comdex and held it every year at the Sands on the Las Vegas Strip.
Comdex took off, so Adelson built a million-square-foot convention center. And there was the new Las Vegas, a place that catered to big conventions all week long — not just the weekend crowd that came in for gambling and the shows.
"I think if you had to single out one individual who brought that kind of component to the city, it would be Sheldon Adelson," said Sig Rogich, a longtime Las Vegas communications consultant. "He was a transformational figure in Las Vegas history."
Big conventions call for bigger hotels.
In 1996, Adelson imploded the Sands and built the Venetian. Now it's part of a complex with more than 8,000 rooms and more than 150 stores and restaurants. Adelson talked about it on Charlie Rose's TV show in 2006.
"Since 1931 when gaming was first legalized in the state of Nevada, people were very casino-centric. Today, Las Vegas is the fully matured capital of entertainment. Gambling only contributes 31 percent to our bottom line," Adelson said.
It's a model that Adelson has taken to China and Singapore with enormous profit.
Along the way, Adelson has had battles. In the Comdex days, he fought the other casino owners. When he put up the Venetian, he froze out the unions that had represented workers at the old Sands.
"Anybody who stands up to him or stands in his way, he'll try to crush," said D. Taylor, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in Las Vegas.
The union held demonstrations outside the Venetian. Adelson claimed it was his sidewalk, not a public place for free speech, because he had replaced the city sidewalk. Adelson took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which brushed off his appeal.
A Record Of Charity
In Las Vegas, though, Adelson is known as much for his philanthropy as for his casinos.
He and his wife, Miriam, a doctor, support a school, a hospice, a medical research foundation and a long list of other organizations stretching from his old hometown in Dorchester to Las Vegas to Jerusalem.
Rabbi Shea Harlig is director of Chabad of Southern Nevada, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community center largely financed by the Adelsons. Harlig says the restrooms are tiled with marble left over from the Venetian.
During an interview, Harlig reached for a pushke, a small box with a coin slot on the top, and said Adelson once recalled the pushke on the dining table when he was a child.
"I believe he asked his dad, 'What is that for?' So he said, 'We give a couple of cents every day, every week and to help the poor,' and Sheldon told his dad, 'But we're poor,' and he says, 'But there's people out there who are poorer than us,' " said Harlig.
Harlig and others said Adelson may be a tough businessman, but he would give a friend the shirt off his back.
"There isn't the arrogance, the aloofness that you would expect or that you could see from other people. No, absolutely not. He's very down to earth, approachable," Harlig said.
One thing Adelson won't do is talk about politics. NPR sought to interview him on all aspects of this story. After several days of negotiations, Adelson declined because NPR wouldn't take politics off the agenda.
Federal records show that since 1999, Adelson and his wife have made disclosed political contributions of $21.6 million, and 82 percent of it has been for the benefit of Gingrich.
"He knows I'm very pro-Israel, and that's the central value of his life," Gingrich told NBC News back in January. "He's very worried that Israel is going to not survive."
This bond goes back to the 1990s, when Gingrich was speaker of the House. Adelson wanted Congress to require that the U.S. Embassy in Israel be moved to Jerusalem.
Gingrich not only spearheaded the effort; he's campaigning on it now.
"As president, on my first day in office, I will issue an executive order directing the U.S. Embassy in Israel to be moved to Jerusalem as provided for in the legislation I introduced in Congress in 1995," Gingrich said in a December speech in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Adelson has also backed scores of other GOP candidates and party committees. Four years ago, his money fueled a group called Freedom's Watch. Mostly, Freedom's Watch ran attack ads pushing a conservative agenda. And that's what the pro-Gingrich superPAC Winning Our Future has done with most of Adelson's money.
Adelson recently told Forbes magazine that he doesn't believe in negative campaigning. But the ads from the pro-Gingrich superPAC were crucial in the candidate's biggest victory nearly two months ago in South Carolina.
It appears that Adelson's millions helped mold the GOP contest into the three-way affair it is today — two conservatives, Rick Santorum and Gingrich, vying with the establishment candidate Mitt Romney and with one another.
Correction: March 20, 2012 12:00 am — The audio version of this story, as did a previous Web version, incorrectly attributes this quote to Donald Snyder, dean of the Harrah College of Hotel Administration at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas: "I think if you had to single out one individual who brought that kind of component to the city, it would be Sheldon Adelson. He was a transformational figure in Las Vegas history." The quote actually came from Sig Rogich, a longtime Las Vegas consultant.