After the Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire, it wasn’t clear whether the entire GOP field was now hopping on the isolationist bandwagon in some odd attempt to scrounge votes from the Ron Paul contingent of the GOP electorate. In the past couple of days there has been reason for advocates of a strong American foreign policy to take heart.

Tim Pawlenty tells Politico:

“I don’t like the drift of the Republican Party toward what appears to be a retreat or a move more towards isolationism,” the former Minnesota governor told POLITICO reporters in an interview.

Pawlenty expressed concern that Obama, who is scheduled to deliver a major speech about the [Afghanistan] conflict, will bring combat troops home too quickly.

He also suggested that front-runner Mitt Romney hasn’t staked out a firm position on the issue.

“I don’t know how to interpret his comments during the [New Hampshire] debate,” he said. “He walked them back post-debate in a couple of publications, so I’m not sure where he landed finally on that.”

In an hourlong interview, Pawlenty took a hawkish position at a time when prominent Republicans have publicly called for significant troop reductions and polls have shown increasing doubt among GOP voters that the conflict can be won. Pawlenty said he supported Obama’s 2009 troop surge but was “very disappointed that he also simultaneously announced the withdrawal deadline in the same speech.”

In the same interview, Pawlenty also tried to undo, yet again, some of the self-inflicted damage from that debate:

On his “Obamneycare” comment, Pawlenty said he “probably” will use the term again to criticize the Romney plan’s similarities to the national health care law. He backed off the term in last week’s GOP presidential primary debate.

“I might change it to something else, but, you know, the same or similar,” he said. “I kinda like ‘Robamacare.’”

Pawlenty is reluctant to go negative so early in the campaign when he remains unknown to about half of Republican voters nationally.

Unfortunately for the Pawlenty campaign, the shortcomings of the messenger are beginning to overshadow the soundness of the message.

Meanwhile, in my discussions over the past couple of days with those advising Romney on foreign policy, it appears he’s not, despite an out-of-character debate comment on Afghanistan, going wobbly on national security either. One of his top foreign policy advisers, Mitchell Reiss, told me that Romney intends to make clear his foreign policy vision in the weeks and months ahead. Underlying his view, according to Reiss, is the belief that “the U.S. is a truly exceptional country and we have a special role to play. It’s not to manage our decline gracefully.”

As for Afghanistan, while Jon Huntsman threw out a figure (presumably off the top of his head) for a small number of troops to remain there, Romney isn’t going down that road. As Reiss put it, “There can be a superficial strategy that covers up a lack of deep thinking.”

Romney in a speech in the fall of 2009 and in his recent book put forth the elements of the forward-leaning foreign policy that have been mainstays of Republican Party since Ronald Reagan — free trade, sufficient spending on national defense, advocacy for human rights and support for traditional allies. We should not expect any of that to change. While the economy remains the dominant issue, Romney does plan on a major foreign policy address this summer or fall that will lay out his vision in more detail. We can expect that it will sharply take issue with Obama’s very personalized view of foreign policy, which at times has seemed premised on rejecting whatever President George W. Bush did and on Obama’s conviction that he is possessed of some special magic that can override national interests and long-standing conflicts. Romney will continue to object to Obama’s preference for bashing allies and embracing foes.

It is on defense spending that Romney seems prepared to buck the disturbing trend in his own party, namely the tendency to see defense spending as nothing more than a line item in debt-reduction plans. Reiss is emphatic on Romney’s opposition to slashing defense spending. “He believes we are under-investing,” Reiss tells me. Rather than picking a number out of the air to set defense spending, Romney (who is taking advice on this from former Missouri senator Jim Talent) advocates looking at our threats and missions, and then coming up with a budget to fit those needs.

The message from these two candidates is clear: They aren’t going to join the scrum of second-tier candidates who think there is a market for isolationism and penny-pinching on defense. The challenge, however, is to criticize Obama’s mishandling of key operations (Libya, most especially) without sounding as if the underlying aims of projecting American power and values were flawed.

In their re-emphasis of a forward-leaning foreign policy, there is a message for other candidates. Foreign policy is not not merely one issue. A candidate’s stance and rhetoric on this topic may denote readiness to lead as commander in chief and to eventually stand on the stage next to Obama. Alternatively, they can seem immature and unserious. Candidates who want to finish at the top of the pack should decide which route they want to take.

UPDATE (1:15 p.m.): It seems that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has firmly planted herself at the grown-ups’ table. She tells Matt Continetti at 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 right now are positive. ... David Petraeus, who wrote the book on counterinsurgency and on the surge strategy, is successfully prosecuting the surge.” Now, if Bachmann is as subtle on other national security matters as she is in simultaneously criticizing Obama on the war’s implementation (“Now, President Obama has not told the story the way President Bush did”) and standing up against the cut-and-run crowd (“We have to win southern Afghanistan, then we have to go on and win eastern Afghanistan. I believe that we will be victorious, and we’ll end it”) she’ll be a force to be reckoned with.