Speaking to Florida Republicans in the wake of a series of deadly terrorist attacks in Paris, GOP candidates for the White House largely stuck Saturday to foreign policy on the second day of the state party’s “Sunshine Summit” event.
It was a striking change from Friday’s first day of the gathering when most of the high-profile contenders for the Republican presidential nomination used standard stump speeches and emphasized their ties to Florida. Instead, the candidates who spoke Saturday included some whose poll numbers have been lower, and they focused on the fallout from the assaults on Paris.
Those attacks overnight Friday — or late in the first day of the summit — left 129 people dead, according to media reports. The Islamic State militant group, which is also known as ISIS, has claimed responsibility.
That put the spotlight Saturday on issues of terrorism and how the United States should handle the Islamic State’s growth in Iraq and Syria. Many of the candidates either spoke extensively about the attacks or scrapped their standard speeches to focus entirely on the events in Paris and whether the United States should expand its current air campaign against ISIS.
Several also used the events to try to distinguish themselves from other contenders on the issue of national security experience.
Carly Fiorina, a businesswoman who had surged to the top tier of GOP candidates but has lately seen her numbers fade, laid at least part of the blame for the attacks on President Barack Obama.
“Mostly, I am outraged because the murder, the mayhem, the danger, the tragedy that we see unfolding in Paris, in the Middle East, around the world and, too often, in our own homeland, are the direct consequences of this administration’s policies,” Fiorina told a cheering crowd of party activists and officials at the Rosen Shingle Creek resort. “You cannot lead from behind.”
Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said the attacks highlighted the need for someone who has dealt with foreign policy over a long timeframe, particularly in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.
He suggested that he and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina fit that bill, along with perhaps Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a former congressman. But Santorum also cast doubt on the relevance of Kasich’s experience.
“I think if you’re interested in national security, you’re looking at frankly two people who have had national security experience in the post-9/11 world,” Santorum said. “That would actually be Sen. Graham and myself. Congressman Kasich was long gone, and I think if you look at some of the policies he’s advocating, I don’t think he clearly understands the threat that radical Islam is. He wasn’t in Congress and wasn’t dealing with it.”
For his part, Kasich called for NATO to invoke the mutual defense clause of the organization’s founding treaty.
Kasich called for no-fly zones to be enforced over Syria, where the government of Bashar al-Assad has sought to hold onto power by brutally crushing a rebellion in a war blamed for killing tens of thousands of people, leaving millions homeless and providing a breeding ground for radical groups like ISIS.
“Last night, it was not just one isolated, small group and not just an attack that we have seen of just a lone wolf,” Kasich said. “Ladies and gentlemen, we need to understand that these attacks really represent an attack on Western civilization.”
But not everyone agreed. Former Virginia Gov. James Gilmore, who pointed to his experience as the state’s chief executive during the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon, said a no-fly zone would be dangerous now that Russia has begun a military intervention in Syria.
“And frankly, we should have had a no-fly zone, which was imposed and put the burden on the Russians to try to intervene and to overturn that, which they probably would not have tried to do,” Gilmore said. “But by delaying so long, and really leaving a lot of our allies out there swinging, now the Russians have intervened and put us in a position where we could end up in a war with Russia.”
Some candidates also used the attacks to highlight divides on how Obama and social conservatives view the conflict between the West and groups like ISIS. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was among those calling for blunt declarations about the involvement of Muslims in terrorist groups.
“We need a president who will say this: Islam has a problem. That problem is radical Islam,” Jindal said. “We need a president who will say this to the Muslim clerics and leaders: It’s not enough to condemn generic acts of violence. They must make it clear, they must go after these individuals by name, and say that they are not martyrs. If you kill in the name of Islam, you are not a martyr. You are not going to enjoy a reward in the afterlife, but rather, you are going straight to hell where you belong.”
Many of the candidates also criticized Obama’s willingness to accept thousands of Syrian refugees in response to the suffering. They said the nation wouldn’t be able to adequately screen potential refugees to make sure that terrorists don’t blend in with other Syrians.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky called for regional powers to absorb some of those flowing out of Syria.
“I would like to see Saudi Arabia take them. I’d also like to see Iran take them,” Paul said. “The two arsonists in that region throwing gasoline on the fire — Saudi Arabia, Iran — they’re not taking any refugees. I think the refugees need to go to some of the local countries.”
At least one candidate seemed to use the dangers of the world to remind Republican voters about the risks of nominating a flamboyant outsider like real-estate tycoon Donald Trump. Without naming Trump, who has vaulted to the top of the polls, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he understands the anger that many GOP voters feel.
“And then you take that anger and you want to use your vote as a chance to send a message about that anger,” Christie said. “These times are too dire for that luxury, and the threats we are facing are too great for that act of vanity.”
–Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida