.For a time it looked like the Republican Party was, as Rick Santorum put it to me in an interview last week, “going Ron Paul” on national security. The Gang of Six signed onto mega-cuts in national security. The New Hampshire debate sounded like a contest for who could express the most skepticism about the Afghanistan War. The Republican-controlled House registered its disapproval with a vote against the Libya war. But then came the debt-ceiling deal and some more serious discussion among the presidential contenders. As a result, the Republican front-runners to one degree or another all have embraced a Reaganesque, forward-leaning American foreign policy.

Jamie Fly, head of the hawkish Foreign Policy Initiative, writes that the departure of Tim Pawlenty from the presidential field “deprives national security conservatives of one of the field’s leading champions of a robust internationalism.” While that is true, the addition of Texas Gov. Rick Perry to the race may have more than made up for Pawlenty’s disappearance. And, with some minor glitches, the other top contenders all present a start contrast between President Obama’s foreign policy and their own.

A foreign policy hand familiar with Perry’s thinking paints a portrait of Perry in bold colors, no pastels. Perry has emphasized his time in the Air Force, and that experience seems to have informed his views on military funding. The foreign policy hand tell me, “Perry understands well that we need to get rid of our debt. He also will not do so on the backs of our military and will not do anything to harm our national security. Debt is an entitlement problem and a slow-growth problem, not a defense problem. He is against defense cuts. He is the only top contender to serve in the military, a time he is very proud of. As an Air Force officer he first learned both the importance of military strength and working with allies.”

As for his criticism of Obama, Perry went, even some of his admirers admit, overboard in questioning whether the president loves the country and suggesting that our military personnel aren’t proud to serve under him. The foreign policy guru assures me, “Perry respects that the president is the commander in chief in a time of war.” That said, Perry, believes that “Obama has slashed defense budgets while asking more and more of our troops. He gives politically driven timetables to end wars while our troops risk their lives. You cannot signal to the enemy when we are leaving and then send troops into harm’s way.”

Perry has also spoken with great affection for Israel, citing his experience in the Middle East while in the Air Force. According to the foreign policy hand, “Unlike Obama he knows Israel is different than its Middle East neighbors — it is a tough democracy fighting the same fight we are fighting.”

Questions have been raised about his wooing of China’s technology firm Huawei that has been repeatedly investigated as a cybersecurity threat. (A campaign spokesman said that any security concerns should be examined.) Nevertheless, he is not one to advocate going along to get along with China. His foreign policy hand tells me, “Perry has worked very well with Chinese companies and is a free-trader to the core. He understands that China is clearly a security competitor, though. China will respect us more as we negotiate with them on difficult issues if we demonstrate our enduring military presence and strong relations with Japan, India and other allies.”

However, Mitt Romney has been no slouch on national security, either, although stylistically he has been less bombastic than Perry. His Web site explains his world view:

The United States faces numerous challenges abroad. China is emerging, Russia is resurgent and radical, violent jihadists seek our destruction. We must rise to these challenges to preserve our interests and promote peace. Mitt Romney believes that peace and prosperity around the world depend on a strong America. That requires a strong military, a strong economy, and a renewed diplomatic strategy that advances the cause of freedom, human rights and opportunity.

Instead of apologizing for America abroad and “leading from behind,” Mitt Romney will pursue a strategy of American strength.

On national security spending, he sounds not too different than Perry. (“Amidst three hot wars, looming threats and a military mission spectrum that now includes humanitarian relief, America must make long-overdue investments in our military. “) He promises to “Modernize air and naval forces, weapons systems and equipment; grow the number of troops and ensure that funds go to their needs and care; establish robust missile defense and repair and update our nuclear arsenal; and oppose efforts to cut our military budget.” He, too, has been critical of Obama’s approach to Israel, accusing the president of “kicking Israel under the bus.” Although he was less than definitive on Afghanistan in the New Hampshire debate, he later clarified his support for the surge and in a subsequent debate accused Obama of using a politically driven timetable for withdrawal of troops.

Michele Bachmann, too, has attempted to clarify her views on foreign policy .On Afghanistan she told Matt Continetti of the Weekly Standard: “On Afghanistan, I firmly believe that we are at a point where we’ve got to stay the course, and we’ve got to finish the job. Reports coming out of Helmand [province] right now are positive. . . . David Petraeus, who wrote the book on counterinsurgency and on the surge strategy, is successfully prosecuting the surge.” She, too, has been highly critical of Obama’s poor leadership during the Arab Spring and tough treatment of Israel.

It should be of comfort to those who favor a robust foreign policy that the only ones in the GOP race advocating slashing defense and picking up stakes in Afghanistan are Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) and Jon Huntsman, neither of whom is considered a top-tier candidate.

How a candidate will respond to foreign policy challenges is nearly impossible to predict. Gov. George W. Bush as a candidate gave no hint that he would vigorously pursue a freedom agenda, and even his most devoted supporters could not have envisioned his leadership in the days following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But unless a president starts from a perspective grounded in enthusiasm for America’s active role in the world, a conviction that America must defend freedom, a loyalty to traditional allies and a willingness to wield all tools including military force to protect American interests, it will be, as we have seen under Obama, rocky going for the United States and the West more generally. So far it seems that the leading GOP contenders are all on the right track and not shy about voicing their difference with the president..