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The Daily Need

In turnaround, Republicans struggle to attack Obama on national security in first debate

GOP candidates stand on stage before the first Republican presidential debate in Manchester, N.H. Photo: AP/Jim Cole

The first Republican presidential debate to feature all seven declared candidates was, for the most part, tame. The participants were civil and restrained, avoided attacking one another and reserved their most searing criticisms for President Obama. As expected, they hammered away at what is likely to be the defining issue of the campaign: jobs.

Perhaps the most notable takeaway, then, was the Republicans’ collective inability to land a solid punch on what has traditionally been one of the GOP’s most profitable issues: national security. All seven of the Republican candidates either strained or demurred when asked to critique the president’s record on foreign affairs. And when they did go on the offensive, their attacks were muddled and vague.

The perceived front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, referred only obliquely to Obama’s timetable for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, saying, “I want those troops to come home based upon not politics, not based upon economics, but instead based upon the conditions on the ground determined by the generals.” Romney even sounded like a Democrat when he added: “Our troops shouldn’t go off and try to fight a war of independence for another nation.”

Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, the Tea Party favorite who formally declared her candidacy Monday night, seemed to attack Obama as both weak and overly aggressive in his decision to join the NATO bombing campaign in Libya. Bachmann assailed Obama for deferring to European allies, saying, “The president was not leading when it came to Libya,” but argued that the decision to bomb Moammar Gadhafi’s regime was “wrong” because “there was no vital national interest.”

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has positioned himself as Romney’s chief rival in the campaign, even seemed to agree with Obama when asked if he would continue the administration’s policy of striking Al Qaeda targets in countries like Yemen. “If there are individuals I have intelligence on, or groups in Yemen that present a threat to our security interests in that region or the United States of America, you can bet they’ll hear from me, and we’ll continue those bombings,” Pawlenty said.

The Republicans’ apparent difficulty stems from a surprising trend: Nearly four years after emerging as the magnetic, anti-war candidate who gave voice to the left’s frustrations with America’s military adventurism, Barack Obama has transformed himself into something of a national security president. Voters give him low marks on his handling of the economy and unemployment, according to polls, but rate his handling of terrorism and foreign policy much more favorably.

In 2008, Obama had the luxury of focusing squarely on the economy, and of running against a Republican nominee who was tarnished by his steadfast support for the unpopular war in Iraq. Now, after aggressively pursuing Al Qaeda targets with drone strikes in Yemen, continuing the planned withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and sending Navy SEALs deep inside Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden, Obama has proven “his general competency with issues related to national security,” said Matt Bennett, a former official in the Clinton administration and vice president of Third Way, a centrist group with close ties to the White House.

Add to that the fact that none of the current crop of GOP presidential contenders has substantial foreign policy experience, and the edge the party has traditionally held over Democrats on issues of national security erodes considerably. “Republicans won’t have the historic advantage that they enjoyed for something like 30 years,” Bennett said. “Up until 2008 they basically were able to just put national security in the bank as an issue that, if not decisive, was important in helping their candidates in presidential elections.”

A Gallup poll released last week, for example, showed that while Obama’s approval ratings on economic issues and government spending ranged from the low to mid 30s, his handling of terrorism was rated favorably by 63 percent of respondents. Similar polls conducted by Bennett’s group last year showed Obama’s approval rating on national security about 8-10 percentage points higher than his overall job approval, and 15 percentage points higher than his marks on economic issues. “And that’s something that hadn’t been seen in politics in four decades,” Bennett said, “the Democratic president with approvals on security higher than his approvals on economics.”

The gap between Obama’s national security experience and that of his Republican rivals could prove an appealing line of attack for the president if the economy remains stalled this time next year. Unemployment is at 9.1 percent, and other economic factors, such as home ownership and consumer confidence, remain stubbornly low as well. The president, then, might be able to distinguish himself not as a savior of jobs but as a steady hand during a time of upheaval across the world.

“It certainly doesn’t hurt a president to have well-established credentials as a strong commander-in-chief,” said Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup poll. He expressed skepticism, though, that voters would weigh a candidate’s record on foreign policy over his stances on economic issues if unemployment remains as high as it is now this time next year. “It’s going to be the economy that’s going to really be the issue. And the shrewd Republican will no doubt try to take advantage of that.”