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2012 contenders voice skepticism on Obama foreign policy

at 05:00 PM ET, 05/03/2011


Tim Pawlenty says that there will still be a foreign policy debate. (JONATHAN ERNST - REUTERS)
In the immediate aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death, Republican presidential contenders were careful to keep their statements congratulatory. Now, some possible candidates are broaching tricky territory — criticizing President Obama’s foreign policy even as they praise an undeniable Administration success.

At a speech in Colorado Monday night, Sarah Palin did not mention Obama at all, saying instead: “We thank President Bush for having made the right calls to set up this victory.” The former Alaska governor went on to question the Obama administration's policy in Libya; “We can't fight every war,” she said. “We can't undo every injustice in the world.”

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty did praise Obama in Iowa Tuesday but also argued that the administration isn’t defined by this moment: “[T]hat’s not the full scope of our foreign policy or our national defense posture, and there will still be a robust debate about what he has done so far and what he will do in the future.”

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum has been the most explicit in his foreign policy criticism so far. “Congratulations, well done, well orchestrated,” he said Monday night of the bin Laden mission. “That's one isolated area ... The president's foreign policy with respect to our security is to make our allies less confident in us and has resulted in them distancing themselves from us,” Santorum said on a trip to Iowa. “And I don't believe that this particular event of killing Osama bin Laden is going to change our enemies' feelings about this.”

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, widely considered the presidential frontrunner, declined to go after Obama on foreign policy.

“This is not a Republican or a Democrat thing; this is an American thing,” Romney said told reporters while traveling in New Hampshire. However, he argued, Americans still have many concerns about the economy and Obama’s handling of it.

Here’s the problem for Republican candidates. Talk of anything other than foreign policy right now will likely get lost. On the other hand, criticizing Obama’s foreign policy days after the president okayed a mission that killed the most high-profile terrorist target of the past ten years could make them seem intractably partisan.

Should these candidates just lay low until the news cycle moves on? Or should they stick to their guns and repeat the foreign policy critiques they were articulating before bin Laden’s death? Poll bumps are fleeting, and the administration’s somewhat bungled handling of the details of bin Laden’s death has left room for criticism.

“Republicans can still challenge him on the issues. That's what elections are all about,” says GOP pollster John McLaughlin.

But criticizing Obama on this issue in particular puts Republicans at odds with the public, for the moment. More than three-quarters of all Americans say the president deserves credit for the killing. Americans’ confidence in Obama’s ability to handle the war in Afghanistan and in the government’s ability to prevent terror attacks are both up dramatically.

There was no movement at all, however, on the president’s economic numbers. Romney’s tack — trying to bring the discussion back to the economy as quickly as possible while avoiding thorny foreign policy issues — is probably the safest path a Republican can take.

 
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