The Christmas party massacre in San Bernardino, California, has made homeland security and the global threat of Islamic terrorism the focal point of the presidential race, forcing Republicans to jockey for who’s the top hawk and testing Democrats’ mettle on national security.
The issue poses challenges for both parties, including potentially raising doubts among Republican voters who have flocked to candidates with no government experience such as billionaire businessman Donald Trump, and could now begin rethinking the value of experience.
Mr. Trump, who has remained at the front of the GOP race in part by defying political correctness, doubled down Sunday on his proposal for surveillance of mosques and profiling of Muslims to root out terrorists in the United States.
“I’m not playing on fears. I’m playing on common sense. We have a problem,” he said on “Face the Nation” on CBS.
He said that profiling Muslims could prevent terrorist attacks such as Wednesday’s mass shooting in California, where a husband-and-wife team linked to the Islamic State killed 14 and wounded 21.
“Everybody seems to agree with me,” said Mr. Trump. “We are having a problem with the radicals in the Muslim group. Let’s not kid ourselves.”
The terrorism issue, which had already gained prominence in the race after the deadly Islamic State attack Nov. 13 in Paris, creates unique challenges for Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Her stint as secretary of state under President Obama was supposed to be her main qualification for commander in chief. That’s starting to look like a major liability as voters sour on the administration’s efforts to keep America safe, according to experts.
“Our failure to successfully stop ISIS is now highlighted by the Paris attacks, and our failure to secure our own homeland is obviously demonstrated by the San Bernardino attack,” said GOP strategist Charlie Black, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
“People are unhappy with the president about these things, and all the candidates are going to be called upon to say what they would do,” he said, adding that the question is particularly difficult for Mrs. Clinton.
“She’s already tried to put a little bit of space between herself and the president on foreign policy, but she really is going to have to do a lot more,” said Mr. Black, who was a top adviser to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.
In an interview the day before the shooting rampage in San Bernardino, Mrs. Clinton mostly backed Mr. Obama’s strategy for fighting Islamic State in the Middle East.
After the shooting, she echoed Mr. Obama’s call for tougher gun control laws, though she was quicker than the White House to acknowledge the attack was terrorism.
“What happened in San Bernardino was a terrorist attack; nobody is arguing with that,” Mrs. Clinton said on ABC’s “This Week.” “But let’s not forget, though, a week before we had an American assault on Planned Parenthood, and some weeks before that we had an assault at a community college. So I don’t see these two as in any way contradictory.
“We have to up our game against terrorists abroad and at home, and we have to take account of our gun laws and the easy access to those guns by people who shouldn’t get them,” she said.
She insisted that it was better not to refer to the terrorists as “Islamic” to avoid alienating Muslims.
A CCN/ORC poll last week found that 85 percent of voters said terrorism was “extremely important” or “very important” in their decision for president. And 76 percent put the same emphasis on foreign policy, according to the poll, which was conducted before the attack in San Bernardino.
Mrs. Clinton was running neck and neck with the top Republican contenders and had a slight lead over GOP front-runner Mr. Trump, 49 percent to 46 percent, according to a CNN poll released this weekend.
She trailed Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida by 1 point, 49 percent to 48 percent, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson by 3 percent, 50 percent to 47 percent.
“More of the voters don’t trust Clinton, and some will tell you they don’t like her, but they will give her credit for being competent and experienced,” said Mr. Black. “It is very difficult to see that Trump or Carson, for example, would be given the same credibility on national security issues as Clinton.”
Mr. Carson, who fell dramatically in the polls in recent weeks, in part due to doubts about his foreign policy ability, pushed back Sunday against the experience question.
“The American people are smart enough to recognize that we’re in a very different time right now. And it’s not necessarily the one who shouts the loudest. It’s not necessarily the one who claims to have all this great experience,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“The fact of the matter is, there’s nobody running who has a great deal of international experience except for Hillary Clinton, and you see where that has led,” said Mr. Carson.
Democratic strategist Craig Varoga, who previously worked on President Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election team, said Mrs. Clinton’s hawkish reputation would distinguish her from Mr. Obama.
“I don’t think anyone should underestimate Hillary Clinton’s strength or her resoluteness on this issue,” he said. “Her strengths as a very tough individual are appealing in terms of how folks respond to this.”
He said the terrorism issue would be “a character test” for both parties and all of the candidates.
For Republican candidates, said Mr. Varoga, the reluctance of most to confront Mr. Trump’s bombast and insults has projected an image of weakness.
“They are flunking the test that Michael Dukakis flunked in 1988, which is if you can’t defend yourself, how are you going to defend the rest of the country?” he said. “Because they have responded inadequately to the Trump campaign — you know, if you can’t handle Donald Trump, how are you going to handle ISIS?”
In the CNN poll, Republican voters said they were most confident with Mr. Trump out of the party’s presidential candidates for dealing with terrorism and foreign policy, with 36 percent saying he’s best on Islamic State and 30 percent saying he’s best on foreign policy.
The next-closest GOP candidate was Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, with 15 percent support on Islamic State and 17 percent on foreign policy, according to the poll.
Mr. Carson was the next best on terrorism at 19 percent.
However, Mr. Rubio topped Mr. Trump among Republican voters who named foreign policy as the top issue, with 22 percent. Mr. Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas tied for second on that issue at 19 percent each.
The poll, which was conducted before the attack, showed the two parties have different outlooks on the terror threat.
Among Republican voters, terrorism ranked second, with 24 percent naming it as the top issue behind the economy and jobs, at 26 percent. Foreign policy ranked third at 17 percent.
About 8 percent of Democratic voters said that terrorism was the top issue, the same percentage that named climate change. The two issues tied for fourth place for most important, behind the economy and jobs at 43 percent, foreign policy at 12 percent and health care at 11 percent.
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