This story has been updated.
The Islamic State set the agenda this week at an annual gathering of conservatives that serves as an unofficial primary for the Republican presidential nomination. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., won the Conservative Political Action Conference’s straw poll, as he has for the past two years. But under the hot spotlight of early 2016 speculation on stage at CPAC, none of the potential candidates emerged as a national security stand-out, and a few stumbled.
The most likely names on a 2016 Republican shortlist range from freshmen Sens. Paul, Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida to current Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and former Govs. Rick Perry of Texas and Jeb Bush of Florida. During the conference, most boldly proclaimed safe and unsurprising positions, marking the boxes on the checklist of Republicans’ favorite foreign policy talking points — anti-Iran, pro-Israel; force first, diplomacy second; bash former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Benghazi, and so on.
Paul and Walker, the second-place finisher, got the most votes, with the Kentucky senator garnering 25.7 percent of the vote and the Wisconsin governor getting 21.4 percent, according to CPAC’s announcement on Saturday evening. Cruz came in third, Bush in fifth, and Rubio in seventh, with Christie rounding out the top 10.
Walker, who has enjoyed a boost in recent weeks, ticked off a number of criticisms of Obama’s national security strategy in a single sentence of his speech on Thursday. “We have a president who draws lines in the sand, that fails to act, who calls ISIS the JV club, who calls Yemen a success, and who calls Iran a country we can do business with, and to add insult to injury, whose former secretary of State actually gave a reset button to the Russians,” he said.
But in less scripted moments in question and answer sessions, speakers tripped outside their comfort zones and highlighted the risks a national security election poses to freshmen senators and multi-term governors light on experience in that area.
Asked how he would respond to the Islamic State if he were elected commander in chief, the Wisconsin governor said he’d handle the terrorist group the way he faced thousands of pro-labor protesters in his home state. “If I can take on 100,000 protesters,” he said, “I can do the same across the world.” (He has since tried to walk back the comments.)
It is not necessarily surprising that national security played such a large role at this year’s CPAC. But the fact that it got bigger cheers than even Cruz’s “defunding every blasted word of Obamacare” is a notable reflection of how current global security crises have shifted the political tides for the GOP, only one election removed from losing the White House due in part to the unpopularity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A shallow background on defense issues doesn’t preclude a candidate from being elected, of course, but the stakes have been raised. Three in 10 of the more than 3,000 who voted between Feb. 25 and Feb. 27 in the CPAC straw poll said national security would be important to them in deciding the nominee, with foreign policy and national security moving up the list of voter priorities, according to CPAC.
In his short session earlier Thursday, the embattled Christie employed a tactic used to some success in the 2014 midterm elections: tie your opponent — this time, Clinton — to Obama. “I think you make sure very directly that you talk about your different vision for the United States,” he said, “different than the Obama-Clinton vision.”
Jindal took the direct route of bashing the sitting Democratic president. “President Obama has disqualified himself, he has shown himself incapable of being our commander in chief,” he said.
“I’ll keep my eye out for the medieval Christians,” Jindal said to Obama, referencing his recent speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. “Why don’t you go out and win the war against radical Islam.”
Yet Cruz noted the challenge another full field of similarly positioned potential nominees poses for the GOP. “2016 looks like it’s gonna be a crowded race,” the senator said. “Every candidate comes up and tells you, ‘I’m the most conservative guy who ever lived.’”
Perry tried to differentiate himself by emphasizing his military service. He was introduced at CPAC Friday as “the governor of Texas, a former Air Force captain,” and his political action committee put out an ad with him saying, “There’s only one individual that’s ever had the uniform of this country on, and that’s me.”
He again used his governing a border state as a national security credential. “[Syrian President Bashar] Assad will cross the red line because he knows our president won’t even defend the line that separates our nation from Mexico,” Perry said.
But even Cruz and Paul, further from the pack on the political spectrum and vying for the grassroots vote strongly represented at CPAC, sounded a similarly hawkish note.
“So there’s not a single Democrat here? … It’s almost like CPAC invited [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu to speak,” Cruz quipped. As for what steps he would take against the Islamic State, the Senate Armed Services Committee member gave the obvious: “That is precisely how we win this — we kill the terrorist leaders before they kill us.”
Paul, unsurprisingly, got perhaps the warmest reception at CPAC. He repeatedly used the phrase “Hillary’s war,” seeming to place himself to the left of Clinton on defense. “We must protect ourselves from jihadists without losing who we are,” he said, making the plug for prioritizing civil liberties, the only one to do so.
But he also tried to walk the line of moving toward the middle on foreign policy, as he has in recent months. “We need a national defense robust enough to defend against all attacks, modern enough to deter all enemies and nimble enough to defend our vital interests,” he said.
When asked directly about concerns he wasn’t tough enough on defense, he answered that while many Republicans agree on prioritizing defense spending, “When we get to foreign policy though, we’re not all the same. On one end there are people who believe we should never be anywhere outside our borders. On the other end there are people who believe we should be everywhere all the time.”
CPAC posed the greatest risk for Jeb Bush, brother of former President George W. Bush, who is not popular with the conservative crowd. With Jeb’s family pedigree, the deepest pockets and most developed campaign infrastructure, many moderators at CPAC framed him to rivals as the one to beat — to loud boos.
Supporters shielded him with cheers during his appearance Friday, yet Bush still struggled with wonkiness that fell flat with the audience and his own seeming discomfort with the spotlight. When asked how he would handle the Islamic State were he elected, Bush said, “put ISIS around a noose,” stumbling over his line from his recent coming-out foreign policy speech.
Pushed for specifics, unlike most other candidates, he said he’d support a “safe zone” for the fighters the U.S. is training to take on the Islamic State in Syria, and “not putting conditions on boots on the ground.” Yet he added, echoing Obama, “All of these require re-engaging with the neighbors in the region.”
Rubio came across as one of the more polished on national security, a project he has worked hard on in Congress. But he said of the Islamic State, “If we wanted to defeat them militarily, we could do it.” Obama doesn’t because “he doesn’t want to upset Iran,” Rubio said. “In his mind, he thinks this deal with Iran is going to be the Obamacare of the second term, and he doesn’t want them sending military to the region because they think the region belongs to them.” But there’s a key distinction; while it’s true that Iran is engaged in a proxy war for influence in the Middle East, it is for this very reason they are also fighting the Islamic State (and are aligned with the Assad regime in Syria.)
The CPAC straw poll gives some indication of who is an early favorite for the nomination among an important subset of Republican voters — but as Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus noted at the conference: there are some 600 days until Election Day 2016.