WASHINGTON Last week, after Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee criticized the Bush administration for an "arrogant bunker mentality" toward the world, rival Mitt Romney rose to George W. Bush's defense. "Mike Huckabee owes the president an apology," Romney said.
But Romney, too, has criticized the Bush administration, saying the occupation of Iraq was "under-planned, understaffed (and) under-managed," resulting in "a mess."
Other GOP candidates have found things to dislike in Bush's foreign policy, too: Rudolph W. Giuliani has dismissed the president's campaign for democracy in the Muslim world as naive and opposed his drive to establish a Palestinian state. John McCain thinks Bush hasn't sent enough troops to Iraq and has been too easy on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
One by one, the Republican candidates have been sketching out the lines of a post-Bush foreign policy. Their prescriptions are not identical, and they have been careful to avoid antagonizing Bush loyalists in the GOP base. But all four have edged away from the most ambitious part of Bush's worldview the idea that the main goal of U.S. foreign policy should be spreading democracy overseas.
"Republicans are drifting back to a less-exuberant position on global intervention for obvious reasons," said Peter Rodman, a former Bush administration official who supports McCain.
"They're saying: 'I'm for all the things in the Bush policy that you liked and that worked and as for the other things, I'll do those differently,"' said Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign policy scholar at Johns Hopkins University.
"It's a very tricky task. ... They want to put some distance between themselves and the president because he isn't very popular. But he is popular among the Republican electorate that they are appealing to now, in the primary campaign," Mandelbaum said. "It's like walking between raindrops."
All of the leading GOP candidates support the most visible planks of Bush's foreign policy: continuing the war in Iraq, tightening sanctions on Iran and pursuing terrorists in every corner of the globe. But all have said that at least in tone and style they would approach the world differently from how the incumbent leader of their party does. Romney and Huckabee have said they would put more emphasis on diplomacy; Giuliani and McCain would be more tough-minded.
The candidates rarely invoke the president's name on the campaign trail, let alone echo his 2005 declaration that the "ultimate goal" of American diplomacy is "ending tyranny in our world."
"Democracy promotion was uniquely Bush's contribution (to foreign policy), and they've backed off it," said Mandelbaum, author of the book "Democracy's Good Name."
"But then," Mandelbaum said, "Bush is no longer a democracy promoter in the sense that he was in 2005. That's partly a victim of Iraq, partly a victim of the recalcitrance of the Arab world, partly a victim of our need for oil from places like Saudi Arabia."
Several of the Republican contenders have distanced themselves from the administration's new drive for peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, although that might be a product of election-year politics as much as diplomatic vision. "It's important to me that we not in any way place pressure on Israel," former Massachusetts Gov. Romney told The Jerusalem Post last month.
And one Republican candidate, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, has denounced Bush roundly for "trying to remake the Middle East in our image." He has called for a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and other countries, a position that has won support from only a minority of Republican voters, according to public opinion polls.
Unlike Paul, Huckabee a former governor of Arkansas supported Bush's decision to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq and to step up the military offensive against insurgents in Baghdad. But he has criticized the administration on other grounds.
"American foreign policy needs to change its tone and its attitude," he said in an article in Foreign Affairs magazine. "The Bush administration's arrogant bunker mentality has been counterproductive at home and abroad."
He called for more diplomatic conversations with hostile countries such as Iran. "When one stops talking to a parent or a friend, differences cannot be resolved and relationships cannot move forward. The same is true for countries," he wrote.
And he appeared to put some blame on the White House for the increasing tension between Washington, D.C., and Tehran: "After President Bush included Iran in the 'axis of evil,' everything went downhill fast," he said, referring to a Bush speech in 2002.
Bush, asked about Huckabee's remarks at a news conference last week, refused to comment. But U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has helped nudge the Bush administration into a greater reliance on diplomacy, said: "The idea that somehow this is a go-it-alone policy is just simply ludicrous."
Huckabee has not backed down. "His principal statement was: 'Let's work on engagement,' and he thinks there's more we can do there," said Huckabee's main foreign policy adviser, former U.S. Treasury Department official J. French Hill, who helped draft the article. "His comment about the administration was not directed at President Bush," Hill added.
Until Huckabee spoke out, Romney had been the Republican candidate who seemed most intent on gingerly establishing a little distance from the administration. U.S. diplomacy in the Muslim world, Romney said, had been inadequate, with "nowhere near the degree of attention, resources and commitment necessary."
He initially took a wait-and-see position on the success of the so-called "surge" of U.S. military forces in Iraq, only to draw criticism from McCain and others for his hesitance.