NEW YORK (AP) — Listen to the Republican candidates for president and they’ll tell you the country faces a dire threat from terrorism, on the brink of falling victim to Islamic State militants.
“I’m afraid some Americans have grown tired of fighting them,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said Monday when kicking off his campaign. “I have bad news to share with you: the radical Islamists are not tired of fighting you.”
Meanwhile, in a Democratic field topped by the nation’s former top diplomat, foreign policy rarely comes up. Instead, Hillary Rodham Clinton and her peers see a nation crippled by economic anxiety, where financial titans grow ever richer and everyday families struggle to keep pace.
“Nobody expects everything to come easy,” Clinton said during a recent campaign event in South Carolina. “But it shouldn’t be quite so hard to get ahead and stay ahead in America.”
As the presidential campaign starts to move past the question of who is and isn’t running for the White House, the two parties find themselves setting out on sharply divergent paths to Election Day. While Clinton visits the early voting states, rarely mentioning her experience as a former secretary of state, her would-be Republican challengers fly to Israel and Poland, eager to gain a foreign policy edge in a crowded primary contest.
“Hillary Clinton is in a complete box on foreign policy,” said Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus. “Eventually she’s going to have to talk about what she did and didn’t do abroad to further the position of our country and improve the safety of our people.”
Yet Clinton’s Democratic challengers don’t see it that way. Rather than talk about foreign affairs as a way to criticize Clinton, they’ve joined with her to focus on pocketbook issues. Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders described a “rigged economy” and argued the country’s “grotesque level of inequality is immoral.” Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley got into the race last weekend with a message to the “bullies of Wall Street” and promises to “to rebuild the truth of the American dream.”
The only Democrat driven by foreign policy is former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, and even then, his primary concern is Clinton’s vote in favor of the Iraq war in 2002.
So far, Clinton’s campaign has felt little need to stress her international record, though aides are confident that she would beat out a less experienced Republican challenger on the issue. Her advisers argue the failing unemployment rate masks a lingering economic anxiety that’s remains voters core concern. The aides spoke on condition of anonymity, in order to brief reporters on campaign strategy.
Republicans don’t ignore economic issues, but foreign policy has dominated their debate. That’s especially true in recent days, as the Senate considers extending surveillance powers granted to the National Security Agency, prompting the party’s candidates lash out at each other (and Clinton).
Republican Sen. Rand Paul has aggressively opposed the 9/11-era anti-terrorism tools and has used his push to end them as a way to raise money for his presidential campaign. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Paul and his supporters suffer from 9/11 amnesia, while Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said Monday that Paul’s efforts won’t help him in the Republican primaries.
Beyond their internal divisions over America’s place in the world, the GOP’s candidates are united in linking Clinton to President Barack Obama’s record overseas. They frequently describe the “Obama-Clinton record” on issues such as Syria’s civil war and the rise of the Islamic State group.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who plans to tour eastern Europe next month, said Clinton has been “riding shotgun for four years” as part of the Obama administration. “It’s her policies as well. And we will hold her to account,” he said while campaigning recently in Michigan.
In a speech Monday in which he raised the prospect of Iran committing genocide with nuclear weapons, Graham was even more direct: “I’ve got one simple message: I have more experience with our national security than any other candidate in this race. That includes you, Hillary.”
Both sides are playing to the interests of their party’s most passionate voters — and donors.
A CBS News/New York Times poll conducted in April and May found that 53 percent of Democrats would vote for a candidate who doesn’t share their views on handling the Islamic State group, while just 34 percent of Republicans said the same.
The top Democratic donor in the 2014 elections was Tom Steyer, a hedge fund manager-turned climate change activist who has already hosted a fundraiser for Clinton at his San Francisco home. Wyoming investor Foster Friess, who almost single-handedly propped up Rick Santorum’s presidential ambitions four years ago, mentions in almost every conversation the need to arm the Kurds to stop the spread of Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria.
The GOP’s largest single donor in the last presidential contest was Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate whose passion for Israel comes before all else. Last week, he presided over a Jewish organization gala in New York, and several GOP candidates used the dinner as a way to jockey — once again — for his attention.
“Our friends in Israel deserve better than what they’ve gotten in the last seven years from this White House,” Christie said.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz took a more alarmist tone. “The nation of Israel has never been more in jeopardy,” he said as Adelson looked on.
Associated Press writers Julie Bykowicz and Emily Swanson in Washington and Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.