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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — With the rise of Islamic State extremists and growing instability overseas, national security is taking on greater prominence in the 2016 presidential race, theoretically giving Republicans an edge on an issue they have traditionally dominated.

But as GOP presidential hopefuls try to appeal to their conservative base with familiar calls for a muscular military posture and increased Pentagon spending, the party is struggling to articulate a coherent message that strikes a contrast to President Barack Obama’s without alienating a war-weary populace or widening internal GOP divisions.

Even more problematic, Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton presents an unusually formidable challenger for the ever-expanding list of Republicans: Most of them have thin resumes on national security compared with a former secretary of state already viewed by many in her own party as somewhat hawkish.

The increasingly aggressive national security stance of Republican candidates was on full display this week, for example in former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s misstep over questions about whether he would have invaded Iraq in 2003, and in Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s policy speech Wednesday, which was long on promises but short on specific policies.

In many ways, Republicans should welcome a discussion on national security, particularly because they are the party that voters frequently have depended upon to confront America’s enemies. At the same time, the U.S. economy, as a campaign issue, has slipped as a top concern among many voters amid an improving job market.

Polls show that for Republican voters, national security ranks higher than pocketbook issues.

“There’s no doubt national security has risen on the most-important-issues list,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist who has worked with Rubio’s campaign. “It’s very clear that America wants a more muscular foreign policy than it has seen in the Obama years, and that’s particularly true of Republican voters.”

But as Jeb Bush discovered, the issue is not as straightforward as it once was. President George W. Bush’s prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan heavily tarnished Republicans’ reputation on national security and foreign affairs.

Despite lingering disapproval over the Iraq war, Jeb Bush said this week that even with the benefit of hindsight, he would have launched the 2003 invasion.

Predictably, Democrats pounced, but so did many conservatives.

“There has to be something wrong with you. You can’t think going into Iraq…as a sane human being, was the right thing to do,” conservative radio host Laura Ingraham said. “It’s a sneak peek as to what Jeb is going to face come the general election should he win the nomination.”

Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor who, like Bush, has yet to officially announce his candidacy for the Republican nomination, piled on. “I don’t think you can honestly say that if we knew then that there were no (weapons of mass destruction), that the country should have gone to war,” he told CNN.

A spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, Mo Elleithee, simply said, “He’s joking, right?”

When asked his position, Rubio said, “Not only would I not have been in favor of it, but President Bush would not have been in favor of it.”

Jeb Bush tried to walk back his remarks, saying he had misunderstood the question. But when offered another chance to answer the question, he seemed to make matters worse, saying he wasn’t sure what he would have done in such a “hypothetical.” On Wednesday in Nevada, he suggested that even asking such a question was a “disservice” to those killed in the conflict.

Bush isn’t the only presidential hopeful struggling on national security. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), has been trying to downplay his previous image as an isolationist, which had put him at odds with an increasing number of Republican voters as well as the hawkish wing of his party.