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Security fears reshape 2016 field

<p>The U.S. presidential contest has been reshaped and its leading candidates reordered as daily reports of a world struggling to avoid escalating conflicts on multiple continents drive security fears back to the top of voters’ minds.</p><p>With Brussels remaining on lockdown 10 days after the Paris terrorist attacks, Tuesday morning brought news that Turkey had shot down a Russian military jet in what amounts to perhaps the biggest direct confrontation between Russia and NATO since the Cold War.</p><p>The recalibration of the fight for the Republican nomination carries real consequences for a number of candidates trying, with varying degrees of success, to create the image of a capable commander in chief.</p><p>“At this point, campaigns are looking for moments to meet and demonstrate why their candidate’s a leader and why they should be trusted not just to handle an issue but to lead a nation,” said Bruce Haynes, a GOP strategist in Washington who is unaligned with a 2016 candidate. “But it’s a moment that also exposes a candidate’s shortcomings if they’re not able to pass this test.”</p><p>True ignorance, it turns out, can be damaging. Ben Carson, who had been near the top of the field, is slipping after struggling to demonstrate any fluency on foreign policy issues.</p><br><p>But Donald Trump, whose “bomb the s**t out of them” approach to the Middle East is equally unsophisticated, is proving the effectiveness of using demagoguery to mask other deficiencies.</p><p>“Carson doesn’t convey strength; in fact, he has conveyed he has no idea what he’s talking about,” said Steve Schmidt, the GOP strategist who guided John McCain’s 2008 campaign. “None of the candidates have truly offered a concrete plan, which includes an exit plan. No one has communicated to American people the sacrifice that will be required if we undertake this plan. And so, short of concrete plans about how to fight this, the ‘bomb the s**t out of them’ guy is going to win.”</p><p>Although his openness to closing mosques and possibly creating a federal database to register all Muslims has outraged many, including Jeb Bush and a number of fellow Republicans, Trump’s overt nativism appears to resonate with his supporters, who are increasingly fearful of a complicated world and desperate for a leader who projects strength above all else.</p><p>In the simmering debate about what to do with Syrian refugees, many candidates have been reluctant to distance themselves too much from Trump. Most have asserted that welcoming refugees is too risky given what they portray as an uncertain vetting process and an inability to guarantee that no one with terrorist ties would be allowed into the U.S.</p><p>At least in the primary, it’s an easy political calculation. A Quinnipiac poll out Tuesday shows that likely Iowa GOP caucus-goers oppose resettling Syrian refugees in the U.S. by an 81 percent to 15 percent margin. But overreacting in November 2015 could put the Republican nominee in a tough spot come the fall of 2016.</p><p>Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, is vulnerable on national security issues. Having served as secretary of state under President Barack Obama, she will no doubt be held to account by Republicans for the administration’s approach to foreign policy. But she can also claim a role in its successes — she was in the room during the Osama bin Laden raid — and is herself far more interventionist than Obama and stands to be the most hawkish Democratic candidate the GOP has faced in decades.</p><p>While she has advocated taking stronger action against ISIL, Clinton has also criticized Republicans on the whole for scapegoating Muslims generally and for employing the politics of fear that animate the conservative base.</p><p>“I think a smart candidate would say the government needs to vet these people and we need to have surveillance but that these refugees are our allies in this fight,” said Kori Schake, who was a foreign policy adviser on John McCain’s 2008 campaign and is now a fellow at the Hoover Institution. “That’s a position that, once the shock of the Paris attacks wears off, will look more attractive to conservative voters. But it’s a hard needle to thread right now. In the near term, every candidate is going to have political pressure to sound anti-immigrant.”</p><br><p>A Reuters poll taken last week put Trump at the top of the field among Republican primary voters looking for a strong commander in chief. Carson, on the other hand, appears to be losing steam due to his shakiness on the subject: his inability last week to state which allies he would call first in the event of a hypothetical terror attack and a subsequent story in which his own advisers said he hasn’t yet downloaded much foreign policy knowledge.</p><p>Ted Cruz appears best positioned to capture the support of voters who have been backing Carson. The Texas senator has said that Syrian refugees — who, he conceded, are suffering from a “humanitarian crisis” — should be resettled not in the United States but in the Middle East. Cruz has challenged Obama to a debate on refugees and argued that an exception be made for persecuted Christians to be offered asylum, as has Jeb Bush.</p><p>In a speech last week at The Citadel, Bush called for ground troops to combat the group known as ISIL or ISIS and, in a flurry of television interviews and campaign events since the Paris attacks, is positioning himself as a steady commander in chief in an attempt to revive his sagging campaign. But the increased hawkishness from Bush serves only to remind many voters of what could arguably be his biggest political liability: his brother and the staleness of the family brand.</p><p>“The ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ policy in response to ISIL — that didn’t go over so well with his brother,” said Ian Bremmer, executive director of The Eurasia Group, a foreign policy think tank based in New York City.</p><p>On the other hand, when Marco Rubio goes in depth on the subject of ISIL and terrorism, his demonstrated understanding of foreign affairs allays voter anxieties about what might be his biggest greatest risk: his relative inexperience. Rubio’s hawkishness isn’t just that of a fresh-faced Hispanic candidate without the political baggage of his former mentor — it’s very much in line with the GOP electorate at the moment.</p><p>“You look at what’s happened to Rand Paul and you see how much the pendulum has shifted from the neo-isolationism of his father,” said Fergus Cullen, a New Hampshire Republican activist.</p><p>Chris Christie, who hasn’t been much of a factor in the Republican race to date, is reminding voters of his experience in the New York area on Sept. 11, 2001, and pressing his case as a strong leader in the mold of Ronald Reagan. During a speech Tuesday at the Council on Foreign Relations, the New Jersey governor suggested that it would be a mistake to elect another first-term senator to be commander in chief.</p><p>“<i>New</i> can be exciting. <i>New</i> is untouched, <i>new</i> is untarnished — but <i>new</i> is untested,” Christie said. “<i>New</i> is not necessarily reliable. <i>New</i> seems fabulous until the moment comes when you need experience.”</p><p>To Cullen, it’s a difficult balance for candidates trying to capitalize on the politics of the moment to win the primary without adopting a stance that, on the whole, looks too bellicose for general election voters. “There is still an Iraq hangover and there is a reluctance in both parties to intervene in foreign affairs,” he said. “This is not a nation that is itching to get in another foreign conflict. Most Republicans think the pendulum has swung too far, but that doesn’t mean they should be advocating starting new wars.”</p><br>

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