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Return of the Republican hawks

Return of the Republican hawks

Republican presidential hopefuls are re-embracing their party’s hawkish roots as the threat of Islamic terrorism rises.

Candidates are tripping over one another to highlight their muscular approaches to foreign policy and national security — and their criticisms of President Obama, whose handling of the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria polls poorly.

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It’s a sharp turn from the past two presidential cycles, when a war-weary GOP sought to distance itself from the policies of President George W. Bush’s administration and the unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Mitt Romney's people had a saying within their campaign that a day talking about foreign policy was a day wasted not talking about the economy. I'm thrilled to see the opposite happening,” said Danielle Pletka, a vice president at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank with close ties to former President George W. Bush’s administration. “The center of gravity has shifted for sure.”

Romney’s failed 2012 bid was all about the economy, while Bush’s war policies were a clear drag on 2008 Republican nominee Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainDeclassify the post-9/11 torture program Arizona GOP censures top state Republicans McCain, Flake and Ducey Whoopi Goldberg wears 'my vice president' shirt day after inauguration MORE (R-Ariz.).

Now, with the economy improving and the threat of ISIS growing, promoting a hawkish foreign policy is a positive for Republicans.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) said this week said the United States should “project power and enforce peaceful stability in far-off areas of the globe.” 

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate to vote Tuesday on Biden's secretary of State pick To 'lower the temperature' raise commitments to federalism Leahy, not Roberts, to preside over impeachment trial MORE (R-Texas) ripped Obama for refusing to use the term Islamic terrorism.

And Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSchumer calls for Biden to declare climate emergency House formally sends impeachment to Senate, putting Trump on trial for Capitol riot Rubio reintroduces amendment to block court packing MORE (R-Fla.) and his allies have been talking up his foreign policy expertise as a big reason he should be considered presidential material.

"There's no doubt foreign policy will play a big role in the 2016 elections," Rubio spokesman Alex Conant told The Hill. "From the Mideast to Latin America to the Pacific, Sen. Rubio has been a leader in developing American foreign policy to confront 21st century threats."

Even libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate to vote Tuesday on Biden's secretary of State pick Leahy, not Roberts, to preside over impeachment trial Sunday shows preview: All eyes on Biden administration to tackle coronavirus MORE (R-Ky.) has sought to prove he’s no isolationist, supporting airstrikes against ISIS and changing his tone on Israeli aid in the last few months.

The changing political winds have been noticed by party insiders.

“This is a critical issue and it's, if not taking center stage, it's taking a bigger part of the stage than it has in past years,” said former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.).

The strong likelihood that former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSenate to vote Tuesday on Biden's secretary of State pick Portman planned exit sets off Ohio free-for-all Biden must wait weekend for State Department pick MORE will be the Democratic nominee in 2016 ramps up the importance for Republicans to nominate someone who’s strong on foreign policy. 

“Whoever emerges after the Cleveland [Republican National] Convention will have Hillary Clinton there waiting for him. And while I think she's been disastrous, having been the secretary she can talk the talk, and the Republican nominee will need to be able to as well,” said former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, who's mulling his own presidential bid. 

The focus on foreign policy will present some challenges for several candidates.

Bush has to deal with the baggage from his brother. This week, he argued he was his “own man” with views “shaped by my own thinking and own experiences.” 

In an effort to create some distance from his brother’s administration, he also acknowledged “there were mistakes made in Iraq.”

Republicans, pointing to the team of national security and foreign advisers Bush announced this week, say it will be a challenge for Jeb Bush to carve out his own identity. 

“How can you say in one case you're distancing yourself, and the very people who are giving you counsel are the ones being criticized?” asked Brad Blakeman, a veteran of the Bush 43 administration who now runs a foreign policy-focused group. “Having them on your masthead as 'these are my policy people' is a gift to Democrats. You can't credibly distance yourself from people who are advising you.” 

Paul is seen as representing an isolationist-leaning wing of the GOP that now appears to be on the wane. He could have the most to lose if Republicans in 2016 are looking for a more hawkish standard-bearer.

Rubio may stand the most to gain — he's been out front on issues from Cuba to Ukraine to ISIS, and has endeared himself to some foreign policy hawks.

“Marco Rubio, of the pack that's been named so far, is the most likely and credible for us,” said Blakeman. “He doesn't have the baggage Jeb has both in name and advisors, and he's someone who can be critical of his own party and also be credible in his criticism.” 

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenators spar over validity of Trump impeachment trial Trump selects South Carolina lawyer for impeachment trial Democrats formally elect Harrison as new DNC chair MORE (R-S.C.), another prominent national security hawk, is in Iowa this week to test the presidential waters for a long-shot campaign with speeches focused on combating terrorism. 

And Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), better known for domestic issues, is now bringing on foreign policy advisors.

All GOP candidates will be looking to woo internationalist-minded donors and conservative Christians who keep close tabs on Israel — as well as military veterans, who happen to make up disproportionate chunks of the populations of early-voting South Carolina and New Hampshire.

“The Iran nuclear weapons [program] is an existential issue for Israel and for the Jewish community on the fundraising side as well as the evangelical pro-Israel community. It matters,” said Coleman. “When you look at all these issues, Iran, ISIS, the swath of devastation and brutality in the Mideast, Russia, and having a former secretary of state on the other side, that certainly elevates the importance of this.”

Whoever the nominee is, hawkish Republicans hope he or she is ready to take on Clinton.

 “Given the last couple of elections it's going to be essential for whoever the Republican nominee is to articulate a proactive vision of where they want to go in the world and not simply be in opposition to the Democrat, and that'll require a development of an agenda,” said former U.N. Ambassador Stuart Holliday.