McCain, Ayotte and Portman say Romney has been ‘vindicated’ on foreign policy, but withhold endorsements as governor seeks national security credibility. By Molly O’Toole
Mitt Romney’s run as the Republican presidential nominee in 2012 was peppered with foreign policy gaffes, but as the former Massachusetts governor considers a third go at the White House, Republican leaders say his national security statements have been “vindicated.”
Romney announced to a group of donors on Friday that he’s eyeing another run in 2016, saying, “I want to be president,” and quickly began feeling out support among national security and foreign policy leaders in Congress. He has indicated he would make foreign policy one of the main pillars of his campaign. After being ridiculed for declaring Russia to be America’s top foe, and softly but vaguely criticizing Obama for not being tough enough on terrorism, Romney believes he’s been redeemed by events from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to a resurgent al-Qaeda.
Republican Sens. John McCain, of Arizona; Kelly Ayotte, of New Hampshire, and Rob Portman, of Ohio, confirmed they’d received calls from the former governor about his decision, and said his foreign policy positions have been borne out by the events of the last two years.
“He’s seriously considering it,” said McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I said, ‘Look, I respect your decision as to what you decide, and I can understand some of the reasons why you’re interested in running again.’” McCain, a former nominee, said Romney “would be viable” and would have “a reservoir of support.”
“One of rationales that Governor Romney is using, and I think it's very legitimate, is that a major factor in his debates was the issue of foreign policy,” McCain said. “Obviously the picture of the world that Barack Obama painted in those debates, Osama bin Laden is dead, al-Qaeda core is decimated, on and on and on. The president of the United States painted a view of the world which turned out to be patently false and more dangerous.”
President Obama defeated Romney in 2012, and mocked him on foreign policy in the debates. To Romney’s statement that Russia is “our number one geopolitical foe,” and that he wouldn’t “wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia, or Mr. Putin,” the president responded: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War's been over for 20 years.” Romney also warned about al-Qaeda and “other jihadist groups rushing in” to take advantage of chaos in the Middle East, and argued more troops should have been kept in Iraq. Obama repeatedly declared that “core al-Qaeda” was on the path to defeat and touted that U.S. Special Forces had killed Osama bin Laden.
Ayotte, an Armed Services member, and Portman, part of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2014, also received calls from Romney -- though the choice likely had as much to do with the battleground-states they represent. McCain joked about Romney’s call to Ayotte that she’s “the most popular Republican every four years in America.”
“Mitt Romney does have a reservoir of good will, I think, left from his prior run,” Ayotte said. “Last time if you look at the debates, even the comments that he was castigated on with regard to Russia -- in light of what's happening in Ukraine, I think he's been vindicated in many ways on some of the things that he said about foreign policy,” she continued. “And he ran last time with a resume of someone who understands how to fix things and get things done. And we all -- we obviously continue to need that here in Washington.”
“I think he’s been vindicated on a number of various things,” Portman said, “including healthcare, his limitation of Obamacare, President Putin and his intentions, also on the economy.”
None of the senators receiving personal calls committed publicly to endorsing Romney.
During the 2012 campaign, Romney struggled to articulate a vision on foreign policy distinct from that of the president. His team of foreign policy advisors was seen across Washington national security circles as disjointed and lackluster in their own support for the candidate. Romney’s foreign policy speeches and talking points often repeated verbatim staff language found in House Armed Service Committee promotional campaigns backing more defense spending.
While Romney has pledged to show a different side -- Romney 3.0, as Politico dubbed it -- he remains as short on national security experience now as he was then. Early support from key senators is important to his credibility. But so too will be whether Romney can win any key early allegiances from notable Republican national security staff and policy leaders who are eager to take advantage of the boiling cauldron of global crises they argue the Democratic White House is mismanaging, at best, or caused, at worst.
Ayotte’s response to Romney was lukewarm, as she also made sure to mention the full roster of Romney competitors expected in 2016. “But, you know, I think we're going to have a very vigorous field here, as you've seen, you know, with obviously Governor Bush exploring as well, a number of our colleagues in the Senate, too.”
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