WASHINGTON – For Republicans, this week's presidential debate highlighted a brewing fight to define the party's foreign policy posture, exposing divisions among candidates about the U.S. role in fostering regime change in the Middle East and tactics to prevent terror attacks at home.
The fault lines reflect a party still in flux long after George W. Bush's unpopular Iraq war damaged Republicans' standing on international issues. While there's little appetite among GOP candidates for the sweeping military intervention and nation-building Bush championed, most are wary of being pegged as isolationists, particularly given Americans' heightened fears of terrorism following attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California.
"The fundamental debate is, well, if Bush did too much and Obama did too little, what's the right amount of international engagement?" said Richard Fontaine, a former foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, and current president of the Center for New American Security think tank.
While foreign policy rarely decides presidential elections except in times of war, national security concerns are likely to remain a top issue for Americans at least through the early voting contests that begin in February. As GOP leaders eye the general election, they believe voters disappointed with President Barack Obama's foreign policy stewardship will be reluctant to elect his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.
First, though, Republicans must work out their own divisions, which could be viewed most clearly in Tuesday's debate through the prism of the rivalry between Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
One of the most striking contrasts between the senators centered on how aggressive the U.S. should be in seeking to topple Middle East dictators, some of whom have been bulwarks against Islamic extremists.
Cruz cast himself as a realist, arguing that while autocrats like Syrian President Bashar Assad don't share American values, their potential cooperation in fighting extremism is preferable to taking a chance on whoever might replace them.
"If we topple Assad, the result will be ISIS will take over Syria, and it will worsen U.S. national security interests," said Cruz, referring to the militant group that claimed responsibility for the attacks in Paris and appears to have inspired the California shooting. Cruz was backed by GOP front-runner Donald Trump and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who both said the U.S. has higher priorities than ousting Assad.
Rubio's view was more in line with both the Bush and Obama administrations' calls for backing the spread of democracy in the Middle East. He argued that Assad's iron grip on power in Syria has allowed the Islamic State to thrive and said he "will not shed a tear" if he is pushed from power.
The Florida senator reiterated his position Wednesday during a campaign stop in New Hampshire, saying, "This idea that we can lead from behind, or in the case of Senator Cruz, not lead at all, will just leave more of these vacuums in other parts of the world."
Rubio and Cruz also had opposing views on what authorities the government should have to monitor Americans' communications. Cruz defended his vote for a new law requiring the government to request call data from telephone companies instead of collecting the information on its own, saying the National Security agency can now access more phone numbers. Rubio said the legislation stripped the National Security Agency of valuable tools to track terrorists.
Both are right, but are emphasizing different aspects of the new law. While the government has lost speed and ability to reach back in time, it has gained volume of coverage.
The debate revealed little new about the candidates' proposals for defeating the Islamic State. Most of the candidates have called for more aggressive action, though their plans have largely lacked specifics or been similar to steps the Obama administration is already taking.
Democrats have their own divisions on foreign policy, though they have been more muted given the relative tameness of the party's presidential primary.
Clinton has largely supported Obama's foreign policy, though she's said the U.S. should first focus on fighting the Islamic State instead of Assad. She's also called for called for setting up a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridors in Syria, steps Obama opposes, though she shares the president's resistance to large-scale ground combat operations in the Middle East.
"The Democrats have the advantage that they can talk about a small directional shift from the Obama administration," said Jon Alterman, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The challenge Clinton will face, if she's the Democratic nominee, is whether smaller shifts on foreign policy are enough for voters.
A recent AP-GfK poll showed 54 percent of Americans say the U.S. military response has not gone far enough in fighting the Islamic State. And just 4 in 10 approve of Obama's handling of the ISIS threat, terrorism or the U.S. role in world affairs more generally.
AP writers Kathleen Ronayne in Manchester, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.
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