Sen. Lindsey Graham is on a mission to convince Republican presidential hopefuls to stop ignoring national security, traditionally a key issue in the South Carolina primary but one that is likely to be eclipsed by the economy this time around.
Graham's crusade could get a boost from a scheduled Nov. 15 GOP presidential primary debate that is set to focus solely on foreign policy and national defense. And the South Carolina Republican said Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) have all begun to give foreign policy issues more attention lately.
But Graham remains dissatisfied and warned that overlooking international affairs could carry a high political price.
In a brief telephone interview with Roll Call, Graham said the Republican White House field "would be wise to talk about" national security, saying the typically important issue "is ripe for the taking" and could elevate a candidate's prospects in his early primary state. Graham said the Republican presidential hopefuls need to "make distinctions" between their approaches to foreign policy and national defense, and that of President Barack Obama.
"This is a big part of being president," Graham said. "Our candidates for president need to challenge him."
The issues have taken on more salience given Obama's recent foreign policy and national security successes, from killing al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden to supporting Libyan rebels as they ousted Moammar Gadhafi. Recent polls have shown that Obama's favorability has increased since Gadhafi's demise and the president's decision to pull American troops out of Iraq by year's end. Both the Libya and Iraq strategies have angered many of the GOP faithful, including Graham.
He said last week that the top tier of the Republican White House field has made strides in its discussions of national security. "It's not what I would like, but it's heading in the right direction," he said. But in an interview on "Fox News Sunday" a few days before Graham spoke with Roll Call, South Carolina's senior Senator said the reason he accepted the Sunday interview request was to push the candidates to home in on foreign policy and national defense. Graham indicated that he was concerned about the support expressed in some quarters of the GOP for pulling out of Afghanistan and Iraq independent of victory, suggesting that such positions hewed too closely to Obama's strategy.
Graham said that the candidates' focus on Iraq, the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, Iran and nuclear weapons, the terrorist threat and Israel thus far "has not been robust enough." He did, however, compliment Santorum for providing "the closest thing we have to a Ronald Reagan voice." Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who resigned earlier this year as Obama's ambassador to China, has been among the most ardent advocates of paring down U.S. military commitments abroad.
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