WASHINGTON - The recent events in Paris seem to have shifted the focus of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign in a major way. Recent public opinion polls show that concerns about national security are on the rise in the wake of the terrorist attacks, prompting strong responses from presidential contenders from both political parties.
For Republican frontrunner Donald Trump the attacks in Paris have reset the presidential campaign with a focus on protecting the homeland. At a rally in South Carolina, Trump asserted that the renewed focus on terrorism and national security has helped him in the polls. “I’ve gone up and everyone else has gone down. And the reason I’ve gone way up because people view me as the one who is going to be the best protector. I’m going to fight like hell for your safety,” he said.
Trump seems to be tapping into voter fears, said analyst John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “He doesn’t have a national security background and he says some things that are outrageous, but he still is playing into the worries, the worries broadly about immigration but more specifically the worries about security and terrorism that flow from that,” Fortier said.
Rivals try to keep pace
Trump’s rivals have seized on the issue including Florida Senator Marco Rubio who argued for a stronger commitment to fight the Islamic State group during a recent rally in Iowa. “Either they win or we win. That is the seriousness of this threat," he said. "And the longer we take to wake up to its reality, the harder it is going to be to defeat it and stop it.”
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, hoping to jumpstart his campaign, laid out his foreign policy vision during a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Christie said President Barack Obama’s efforts to contain the terrorists have been weak. “I think our biggest problem, America’s largest problem, is that we face a fundamental and crippling lack of leadership,” he said.
Also on the campaign trail this week, Texas Senator Ted Cruz defended his opposition to allowing Syrian refugees into the U.S. as part of a broad anti-terror strategy. “It is neither offensive nor un-American to embrace the simple, common sense proposition that of course we should defend this nation and not invite in people who the administration cannot guarantee are not terrorists here to murder innocent Americans,” he said.
A new Quinnipiac University poll of Republican voters in Iowa showed Cruz surging into second place with 23 percent support, right behind Trump at 25 percent. The Cruz surge seems to have come at the expense of Dr. Ben Carson, who is now down at 18 percent in the Iowa poll after leading in the previous survey.
Clinton’s aggressive tone
The new focus on terrorism is also playing out in the Democratic race. Frontrunner Hillary Clinton said it is time for a tougher approach in dealing with the Islamic State group. “Our goal is not to deter or contain ISIS, but to defeat and destroy ISIS," she said. " And we should be honest about the fact that to be successful, airstrikes will have to be combined with ground forces actually taking back more territory from ISIS.”
Rival Bernie Sanders preferred to keep his focus on helping the middle class economically. But he also said that any increased focus on stopping terrorism must be done as part of a coordinated effort with U.S. allies in the Middle East. “Though we have an international coalition, the troops on the ground are the Muslim nations that the United States and the rest of the world are supporting, and that’s the way you destroy ISIS,” he said.
New focus could help Republicans
The new campaign focus on terrorism and national security could help the Republicans, said Stuart Rothenberg, founder of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. “Traditionally, you know, on foreign policy the Republicans have been the party of a muscular foreign policy, strength and defense," he said. "So anytime there is a question of U.S. vulnerability it helps the Republicans.”
Voters traditionally focus first and foremost on the economy in presidential election years, so it remains to be seen whether the new focus on security will last, said Brookings Institution Scholar William Galston. “Whether that heightened concern will persist through the 2016 election is another matter, but it is certainly shaping and reshaping the political dialogue here and now and seems very likely to have an impact on the presidential nominating process,” he said.
The heightened fears about terrorism and focus on national security come at a critical time in the early stage of the 2016 campaign as voters prepare to choose party nominees beginning February 1 in Iowa.