The threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has created an opportunity for three potential White House hopefuls in the Senate to grab the spotlight from Republican governors.
Governors have long enjoyed an advantage in presidential bids over lawmakers, but the emergence of ISIS could upend conventional wisdom.
Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist and pollster, said the field is “demonstrating a remarkable difference in knowledge about foreign affairs.”
“The governors are in a far worse position to be really knowledgeable about complex foreign policy matters because they don’t have to deal with them for the most part in their day-to-day jobs,” he added. Ayres is Rubio’s pollster.
Governors have an edge generally, strategists say, because they have more executive experience, are viewed as less partisan and don’t have a long voting record that can be used as ammo against them.
Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence panels, has used the debate to distinguish himself as the inheritor of the muscular foreign policy worldview held by former President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCainJohn McCainSunday shows preview: Trump sits down with Fox McCain: Tillerson ties to Putin a 'matter of concern' Second Dem calls for probe into Russian election involvement MORE (R-Ariz.).
While he says it would be good for President Obama to seek congressional support for military action against ISIS, he argues the president doesn’t need it.
Rubio says he supports arming more moderate rebel factions in Syria, something he called for two years ago, even while acknowledging it will be more difficult to build them into a viable alternative given the strength of ISIS. The Florida senator has warned that it may be necessary to put American boots on the ground, though he would prefer to avoid that kind of escalation.
Of the Senate’s Oval Office aspirants, Paul has been the most suspicious of U.S. intervention, a potential liability in the current climate, when polls are showing a rapid shift in public opinion in favor of attacking ISIS.
The senator declared, “I am not an isolationist,” in a recent column for Time magazine and has ratcheted up his rhetoric in favor of military strikes against ISIS. He has called for “eradicating” the group and promised to vote “in a heartbeat” to authorize strikes.
It’s a shift from earlier in the summer when he said he had mixed feelings about launching airstrikes.
Paul remains opposed to arming Syrian rebels, which he calls a “mistake.” At the end of last month, he blamed the rise of ISIS on U.S. “interventionists,” arguing in The Wall Street Journal “the CIA delivered arms and other equipment to Syrian rebels, strengthening the side of the ISIS jihadists.”
He insists that Congress should vote on a resolution authorizing military force, and warns Obama would disrespect the Constitution by not doing so.
Cruz stands between Rubio and Paul, leaning more toward the latter’s views. He has urged the president to bomb ISIS “back to the Stone Age” and called for a “directed, concerted, overwhelming campaign to take them out.”
But while he has employed more forceful rhetoric than Paul, the Texas senator says Obama must receive permission from Congress, and opposes arming Syrian rebels. Cruz, who sits on the Armed Services Committee, has warned that weapons sent to moderate factions could wind up in the hands of ISIS and other allies of al Qaeda.
“Ted Cruz is probably most in line with the Republican base in the sense he doesn’t want to have a discussion of Syria versus Iraq. He wants to dismantle and destroy ISIS. Period,” GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said. “But he wants Congress to vote on it.”
Cruz has taken a more aggressive role than Paul by pushing legislation to strip citizenship from people who fight with a hostile foreign government or a foreign terrorist organization.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, another potential presidential candidate in 2016 who is in a tough reelection race this year, has spoken generally about the threat posed by ISIS, but claims that Americans are as concerned about economic pressures at home.
“People are fearful of living paycheck to paycheck. They’re fearful they’re not going to pay the mortgage and they want leaders who are going to be focused on those issues,” he told Fox News Radio’s Brian Kilmeade.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has said little publicly about ISIS, although he met with local and federal officials on Monday to discuss strategies for protecting the New York region from retaliatory strikes from ISIS.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has kept his statements on ISIS to a minimum, tweeting recently: “Genocide of Christians, threats to the US, now the beheading of an American. The ISIS are thugs and must be stopped.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has shown no reluctance to weigh in on ISIS, though his foray into international politics has not been gaffe-free.
He earned points with the conservative base by bashing Obama for “always playing catch-up” and “dithering and debating” about what to do in response to ISIS, but his claim that ISIS might have snuck into the country across the Southern border attracted criticism.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has a strong following among Christian conservatives upset by the persecution of fellow Christians by ISIS militants, has spoken out in favor of military action. But like other governors, he has the luxury of sticking to broad statements, because he does not have to vote on the issue.
Ron Kaufman, who served as White House political director to former President George H.W. Bush, said, “Governors don’t get involved because it’s not their prerogative, if you will. It doesn’t affect them. Even those who are thinking of running for president in 2016, they all want to wait until after the 2014 election. Republicans have been very focused to their credit, on ’14 versus ’16.”