WASHINGTON — After years of Republicans dominating the politics of national security, this year's GOP presidential candidates are struggling to find a coherent national security argument against President Barack Obama.
In the first debate dedicated to security and foreign policy, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney took issue with Obama's plan for drawing down troops in Afghanistan but the dispute amounted to whether some forces should stay an extra few months. Texas Gov. Rick Perry called for sanctions against the Iranian central bank. Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman debated whether the World Trade Organization should investigate Chinese currency practices.
All of the candidates offered only incremental criticism of the Democrat who has racked up a string of security successes, a stark contrast to the with-us-or-against-us politics Republicans have used since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. If the debate made anything clear, it's that Republicans have lost-their go-to national security talking points, with Osama bin Laden's body somewhere in the Indian Ocean, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq drawing to a close and Obama expanding the use of unmanned spy planes to hunt terrorists.
"I don't think there's a very strong narrative," said Tony Fratto, who served as a White House and Treasury Department spokesman during the Bush administration. "Is it a significant issue for a majority of Republican voters? No. It's not."
And it's not hard to understand why.
The sluggish economy is at the top of voters' concerns and, thus, dominating the campaign conversation. National security and foreign policy issues have been all but absent from the Republican primary contest and, given that the 9 percent unemployment rate is showing no sign of significant improvement, it no doubt will shape the general election, as well.
Unlike four and eight years ago, a GOP heavily influenced by the tea party this year has found more traction criticizing Obama for spending at home and it turns to that line of attack any chance it gets.
Even Saturday during a debate, one of the lengthier exchanges was over foreign aid, which makes up about 1 percent of the federal budget but is a popular target for criticism among fiscal conservatives, particularly in the tea party movement.
"I don't believe any of them have spent much time trying to think through and understand foreign assistance," much of which involves providing weapons, training and equipment to countries that protect our interests, Fratto said.
The candidates also veered into more familiar territory, criticizing the president's health care program and spending on public broadcasting and the arts.
Flashback to 2002 and 2004 when President George W. Bush led the party.
White House political adviser Karl Rove urged Republicans to make the war on terrorism central to congressional elections, saying: "We can go to the country on this issue."
Then, Bush made security the centerpiece of his re-election campaign. Domestic issues took a backseat to all else. His nominating convention was in New York City not far from where the World Trade Center towers once stood. And Bush's team ran an advertisement against Democrat John Kerry showing a pack of wolves in the forest, with a narrator saying, "weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm."
In contrast, Obama is letting his actions — and his successes — on that front speak for itself and is focusing primarily on economic issues.
Barring a terrorist attack against the United States, Obama will go into the general election with the upper hand on an issue matrix where Republicans used to have a strong advantage.
"No matter what you criticize him on, he can say, 'I got bin Laden,' " said Marc Thiessen, a former Bush speechwriter. "In the world of 30-second sound bites, there is a very good case to be made against Obama's foreign policy, but he has a very good talking point."
Despite compiling a lengthy terrorist body count, Obama still has not laid out a clear policy on detention, interrogation and how the government will prosecute terrorists. The prison in Guantanamo Bay will remain open and there's no indication that there will be a plan for dealing with the prisoners, many of whom have been cleared for release since the Bush administration.
Part of the challenge for Republicans is that the president has an advantage on national security issues by virtue of his daily interaction with world leaders and his access to the nation's most sensitive intelligence. During the 2004 presidential debate, when Kerry criticized Bush's collaboration with other world leaders, Bush countered, portraying Kerry as an armchair quarterback.
"I know how these people think," Bush said. "I deal with them all the time. I sit down with the world leaders frequently and talk to them on the phone frequently."
Today, that advantage goes to Obama.Comment on this story
At the same time, the GOP field — made up primarily of current and former governors — starts from a position of disadvantage, collectively having little foreign policy experience.
Voters also have grown tired of the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, making it harder for any other foreign policy message to resonate.
"It's really reflective of where the voters are more than anything else," said Fratto.
Still, in the end, whoever is president in 2013 will face a number of foreign policy challenges, such as how to respond to Chinese cyber attacks and how to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons — issues that were touched on only briefly Saturday.