LONDON — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is here in the United Kingdom, where he said he looks forward to getting reacquainted with Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal recently returned from a European tour during which he assailed Hillary Rodham Clinton for her “mindless naivete.” And next week, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is due in London for an overseas trip of his own.
Republican presidential hopefuls are busy auditioning on the world stage ahead of the 2016 campaign, trying to bolster their résumés and develop expertise as their party seizes on foreign affairs as a key theme in its effort to reclaim the White House.
GOP leaders and strategists consider foreign policy a weakness of President Obama’s tenure and therefore a potential vulnerability for Clinton, the likely Democratic candidate who helped carry out Obama’s first-term foreign policy as secretary of state. Many contenders have been attacking Clinton. Before bowing out last week, Mitt Romney called the Obama administration “timid” and accused Clinton of acting “cluelessly.”
Yet many of the Republican Party’s rising stars — like Romney, its 2012 nominee — are governors with scant international exposure, so they are acting quickly to try to gain credibility.
Enter Christie, whose London visit is his fourth foreign trip as governor, following tours of Canada, Israel and Mexico. Ahead of official meetings that begin here Monday, Christie took in a soccer match Sunday afternoon. As he exited the gleaming Emirates Stadium, bundled up on a frigid afternoon with Arsenal’s red-and-white team scarf, Christie said he was excited about nurturing relationships with British officials.
Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said talking about foreign affairs reveals a presidential candidate’s character, communications skills and decision-making style. While domestic issues “concern budgets, detailed lawmaking, cooperation with Congress and technical matters,” he said, “foreign affairs are in some ways simpler. It’s about how to handle bad guys, how to protect the country, and how to convey confidence and purpose.”
Like Christie, most of the other Republican White House hopefuls have articulated hawkish views in line with their party’s traditional orthodoxy, though a divergent and more isolationist view has emerged within the party’s libertarian wing represented by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
Any Republican candidate would face an unusual challenge in drafting national security platforms in opposition to Clinton. As a senator and 2008 presidential candidate, Clinton developed a record and reputation as a foreign policy hawk that would complicate or head off the traditional GOP argument about Democratic weakness on security issues.
Nearly two years out from the next presidential election, the contenders have yet to present specifics beyond sketching out their worldviews. It also is unclear how much foreign affairs will shape the campaign. If the economy continues to improve, the public’s attention could turn beyond the U.S.’s borders. And as always, world events that may not be foreseen, such as a terrorist attack, could set the agenda.
“Foreign policy could end up playing a minimal role on both sides, or it could end up playing a fairly large role, and I think the honest answer is nobody knows at this point,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, whom several presidential candidates have consulted.
Regardless, he said, it is important for candidates to “kick some tires around the world.” He added: “You don’t want to make a mistake which would raise questions about your readiness for the job.”
So it is that would-be Republican candidates have been traveling the globe — many of them under the guise of trade missions to promote economic development for their states on trips paid with public funds.
The visits usually include meetings with foreign government and business officials as well as cultural stops. In England, Christie is sitting down with Cameron but also will see a rehearsal of William Shakespeare’s “Henry V” at Shakespeare’s historic Globe Theatre.
Former Texas governor Rick Perry has traveled overseas repeatedly since his failed 2012 presidential campaign, including visits last year to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and to China, Japan and several Eastern European nations.
Israel is a popular spot for many prospective candidates. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence spent Christmas in Jerusalem, where he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee is leading a tour there later this month. For $5,250 a person, guests can join Huckabee for meetings with senior Israeli officials and tours of Holy Land sites, including swimming in the Dead Sea.
Other presidential hopefuls have a more natural footing in such areas. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), through his service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has made many trips abroad and has been at the center of U.S. foreign policy debates, recently over Obama’s move to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Although many Republicans say their party should turn to a governor as its standard-bearer, Rubio argues that his national-security experience in the Senate is a more valuable commodity than an executive background.
“You can’t have middle-class prosperity if your national security is threatened,” Rubio told reporters in January. “So the next president needs to be someone that has a clear view of what’s happening in the world, a clear strategic vision of America’s role in it, and a clear tactical plan for how to engage America in global affairs.”
It could be difficult for Republicans to cast Clinton as too weak on foreign policy, considering she earned the vocal admiration of many hawkish senators when she served alongside them.
As the county’s top diplomat, Clinton carried out an Obama foreign policy that Republicans attacked as overly deliberative, but as a candidate to succeed him, she can show evidence that she would have taken tougher positions.
One example is Syria, where Clinton favored earlier and stronger military help for beleaguered rebels. She also holds a deeply skeptical view of Russian power, and despite the failure of the policy “reset” with Moscow, it will be difficult for Republicans to paint her as naive.
Clinton would have a harder time showing how she would have made different choices in other areas, including in the current struggle to counter Islamic State rebels. Harder still for Clinton may be the lingering taint of the deadly assaults on two U.S. compounds in Benghazi, Libya, in her final months at the State Department.
Clinton has said she bears ultimate responsibility for Benghazi and has called it the greatest regret of her tenure. But she has denied any knowledge of the circumstances leading up to the armed attacks by extremists or any direct role in responding to them.
Multiple investigations have revealed bureaucratic and safety problems but no high-level malfeasance. Still, the deaths of four Americans on her watch is a political vulnerability that undermines Clinton’s image as an industrious and efficient executive.
With unrest across the world, Republicans believe foreign policy could be a winning campaign theme.
“Republicans want this to be an issue,” said Kori Schake, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and an official in George W. Bush’s administration. “If Hillary Clinton is a candidate, she will argue she’s a steady set of hands — you know, the 3 a.m. phone call — so Republicans will need to be strong on foreign policy.”
Gearan reported from Washington.