Dominance of national security issue shakes up race for White House

Dominance of national security issue shakes up race for White House
© Greg Nash

The resurgence of Islamic terrorism and President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran is shaking up the race for the White House, pushing national security to the forefront of the GOP primary debate.

The primacy of foreign policy could be a problem for Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSinkhole opens up a block away from White House Civil rights group marks MLK Day with call for 'Trump card' national ID Pressure mounts for Trump to reconsider Syria withdrawal MORE (R-Ky.), the libertarian Tea Party favorite, who is set to launch his presidential campaign next week in Louisville. He proposed steep defense cuts when he first came to the Senate and has expressed wariness about foreign military interventions.

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On the other hand, the new dynamic could help Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHillicon Valley: Lawmakers worry as 'deepfakes' spread | New intel strategy sees threats from emerging tech | Google fined M under EU data rules | WhatsApp moves to curb misinformation Tlaib: 'Right wing media is now targeting my little sister' Airbnb is doing the Democrats' dirty work MORE (R-Fla.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGroup aiming to draft Beto O’Rourke unveils first 2020 video Howard Dean looking for a 'younger, newer' Democratic nominee in 2020 Congress can stop the war on science MORE (R-Texas), who have touted their experience on the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, respectively, as they make the case for their candidacies.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainOvernight Health Care: HHS chief refuses to testify on family separations | Grassley to test GOP on lowering drug prices | PhRMA spends record on lobbying in 2018 Will a Democratic woman break the glass ceiling in 2020? Republican state lawmaker introduces bill that would tax porn to fund Trump's border wall MORE (R-Ariz.), the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, said the public executions by Islamic terrorists of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff last summer were a turning point for voters.

“There’s such a thing as a seminal moment, and that was the beheadings,” McCain said.

“We saw immediate shift, and then you saw the other atrocities that took place. But the beheadings, really, when it went viral, that’s really when opinions started changing, especially among Republican primary voters,” he said.

McCain has signaled his support for Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham angers Dems by digging into Clinton, Obama controversies Barr’s first task as AG: Look at former FBI leaders’ conduct Debate builds over making Mueller report public MORE (R-S.C.) in the 2016 race, a close friend who is a leading voice on national security issues in Washington but is not widely viewed as a top-tier contender.

Bill McInturff, a partner at Public Opinion Strategies, a GOP polling firm, said polling backs McCain’s take on the 2016 race, and pointed to a nationwide March NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted by his firm in conjunction with Hart Research.

The survey found that 79 percent of Republican primary voters favor a candidate who supports sending combat troops to Iraq to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Eighty-seven percent of very conservative GOP primary voters favor a candidate who would deploy ground troops against Islamic militants.

The poll found that 72 percent of Republican voters are worried about a terrorist attack, an 8-point increase over July 2007.

The numbers are in line with similar findings by recent polls in early primary states such as New Hampshire and Iowa, a trend McCain cited. 

A March Suffolk University Political Research Center poll of 500 likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire found 30 percent of respondents rated terrorism and national security as the most important issue facing the country. Jobs and the economy ranked second, at 21 percent.

A February NBC News/Maris poll of Iowa residents found “military action against ISIS” as the third most important issue, ranking behind only job creation and the deficit.

“We saw the change starting to occur right after the beheadings, the first beheadings,” said Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster who does work for Rubio. “In the Senate battleground states in 2014, by October the top three issues in those races were the economy, ObamaCare and ISIS and national security.”

“It’s a remarkable jump compared to a year earlier,” he added.  

Republican presidential hopefuls on Thursday and Friday raced to condemn Obama’s diplomatic understanding with Iran over its nuclear program, denouncing the deal in strident terms.

“I cannot stand behind such a flawed agreement,” said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Rubio said “the initial details appear to be very troubling.”

Cruz added that, “under no circumstances should a U.S. president lift sanctions and grant nuclear capability to a nation that proudly chants ‘Death to America.’ ”

Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said the “post-Iraq war rise of isolationist sentiment on the left and the right peaked” during the early years of the Obama administration.

While she said isolationism remains “quite strong” on the left, “on the right, the libertarian isolationist wing has jumped the shark.”

“When Rand Paul is talking aid to Israel and fighting ISIS, he’s lost the narrative,” she said.

Under attack from pro-defense Republicans and neoconservatives who favor interventionist foreign policies, Paul last year introduced legislation to halt U.S. foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority until it renounces violence against Israel.

Sentiments have shifted even among conservative Tea Party voters, a crucial electoral bloc for Paul, who must compete with Cruz for its support.

“Poor Rand Paul, he’s one cycle off. Had he been able to run in 2012 he would have had a huge following,” said Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation.

“There is a lot more sentiment even among fiscal hawks for more defense spending because we’ve realized just how badly Obama has gutted the military,” he added.

Paul appeared to recognize the threat to his candidacy when he offered an amendment in late March to the GOP budget that would have increased defense spending to $696 billion, a level endorsed by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. It received scant support because Paul offset its cost with spending cuts, including a chop to foreign aid.

Paul told The Hill that he’s not bending to the political winds but instead making the point that increased defense spending shouldn’t add to the deficit.

Graham took a shot at Paul during the budget debate. 

"Rand Paul is playing catch-up. Look at his original budget. All I can say is nobody's going to be fooled by this," he added, referring to Paul's 2011 budget proposal, which called for $542 billion in defense spending for fiscal 2016.

Brian Darling, a former senior aid to Paul, disputed claims that voters are hungry for another major military intervention in the Middle East. He said while voters may endorse defeating ISIS in polls, that doesn’t mean they want to sacrifice the lives and treasure to do it.

“Do we really think the American people are excited about putting ground troops in Iraq? They want to defeat ISIS, no question, but putting American soldiers in harm’s way?” he said.

“People who are saying that American primary voters want another war are misguided and don’t accurately reflect where Republican voters and American voters are at this point,” he added, calling demands for a robust military mission “a throwback to the Bush years.”

He said Paul could benefit by positioning himself as the only candidate extremely skeptical of another military intervention.

“He’s going to have his own space because he’s pushing for a foreign policy where war is not the first option,” he said.