Sheldon Adelson's $10m bet for the White House

Billionaire businessman Sheldon Adelson has backed outside runner Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign to the tune of $10m. Is this his most flamboyant gamble?

When Sheldon Adelson recreated Venice in Las Vegas complete with a replica St Mark's Square, Rialto Bridge and Grand Canal some thought him mad, says Christina Lamb in The Sunday Times. "A man who does nothing by halves", Adelson created a lagoon in the desert and hired opera-singing gondoliers to entice business conference delegates (unlikely customers) to his casino resort. "Fifteen years on, he is seen as having revolutionised the Vegas hotel industry."

Adelson is now bent on administering a similar shake-up to the US political system, says The Atlantic. With his wife, Miriam, he has poured $10m into friend Newt Gingrich's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination funding the "attack" commercials that helped him beat Mitt Romney in South Carolina.

Gingrich's Florida drubbing led some to sneer that he is "Adelson's worst gamble". Yet this "pugnacious" billionaire who lost $24bn in months in 2008, but re-made $22bn is unlikely to abandon Gingrich, or their political and Zionist causes (see below) lightly.

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A 78-year-old veteran of political and commercial brawls, the Sands Corp tycoon has taken on everyone from union bosses to the Chinese government. Renowned for pursuing rebellious employees through the courts, Adelson has "left a trail of angry former business associates", observes The New York Times. "Even his two sons sued him at one point, accusing him of cheating them" naturally, they lost.

The son of eastern European immigrants, Adelson grew up during the Depression in a one-room tenement in Boston's tough Dorchester neighbourhood. He showed his entrepreneurial streak early on: at the age of 12, he sold newspapers; at 16, he ran a business stocking candy-vending machines.

Eventually he hit the jackpot in his mid-40s with Comdex, the electronics trade show he started in Las Vegas in 1979, which quickly became the industry's signature event. When he sold out in 1995, pocketing $510m, he channelled the cash into regenerating the Sands hotel once the haunt of the Rat Pack.

Adelson lost no time building his new career as an international casino magnate. He was the first into Macau when the Chinese relaxed gambling restrictions, and lobbied the king of Jordan about building a gambling resort on the Jordan-Israel border ("The Red Sea Kingdom") before conceding it would probably "be blown to smithereens". His audacity has, on occasion, led to brushes with the law.

The US Justice Department is investigating allegations that his Macau operations made corrupt payments to officials. Still, Adelson's exterior hides a kindly streak. "He can be a softy," a friend told The Observer. Having donated hundreds of millions to Jewish causes, medical research and injured veterans, he aims to give away $1bn a year. With that largesse at his disposal, what's $10m among friends?

Fervent sentiment backed by ruthlessness

"The dream appears to be dead," says The Economist. Having failed to achieve campaign "orbit velocity", Newt Gingrich resembles a "dead man moonwalking": it seems unlikely the maverick former House Speaker will become the Republican nominee. Still, given his record for shock turnarounds, he can't be ruled out yet and in Florida this week he was defiant in defeat.

If Gingrich makes it to the White House, says The Nation, he will owe Adelson "a direct and personal debt". Outgunned by Romney financially, Adelson's timely cash injection into Gingrich's Winning Our Future "super-pac" (political action committee) inflicted considerable damage on the Mormon front-runner.

It also ensured one of the dirtiest campaigns in recent history, with both rivals taking "nasty and personal shots at each other", says the Huffington Post. Gingrich branded Romney "a liar and a cheat" depicting the "King of Bain" as a ruthless asset-stripper and "jobs killer", bent on suppressing religious liberty.

A political hardliner, Adelson appears happy to support even Gingrich's extreme views on child labour (he suggested schools fire janitors and replace them with poor children). Yet it's on Israel that the men are most at one, says The Observer. An "impassioned opponent of an independent Palestine", Adelson supports Gingrich's inflammatory pledge to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, praising his description of Palestinians as an "invented people".

Friends say Adelson's staunch Zionist beliefs are "consistent with his take-no-prisoners personality", says The New York Times. But he's a late convert, experiencing "something of an awakening" after his first visit to Israel in 1988. "On one of his first trips, he wore the shoes of his late father, a cabdriver from Lithuania, who was never able to visit there." Fervent sentiment backed by ruthlessness that's Adelson in a nutshell.