GOP’s na­tional se­cu­rity dis­cord deep­ens

The rift is high­lighted by Rand Paul’s as­sault on the NSA. The is­sue was once a source of elec­toral strength.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By David Lauter and Lisa Mascaro

WASH­ING­TON — Likely vot­ers in the Repub­li­can pri­maries put na­tional se­cu­rity at the top of their list of con­cerns. Party strate­gists hope to use wor­ries about the state of the world as a weapon against for­mer Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton if she be­comes the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee.

But be­fore they can do that ef­fec­tively, Repub­li­cans need to agree among them­selves on for­eign and de­fense is­sues. Right now, they ap­pear to be mov­ing fur­ther apart.

Those deep and some­times bit­ter di­vi­sions could ham­per the party’s even­tual pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee. For now, they are likely to prove a se­ri­ous im­ped­i­ment to the as­pi­ra­tions of one of the chief ac­tors in the drama over sur­veil­lance: Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky.

Paul’s strong at­tacks on the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency, as well as his cham­pi­oning of a less in­ter­ven­tion­ist for­eign pol­icy, have helped him gain ar­dent sup­port­ers and a strong fundrais­ing base as he pur­sues his party’s pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion. But those same is­sues have also sparked deep op­po­si­tion to him among party lead­ers and may limit his abil­ity to broaden his ap­peal among vot­ers.

A poll re­leased over the week­end of Iowans who are likely to take part in the state’s Jan­uary cau­cuses found that the share who rated Paul fa­vor­ably had fallen 9 per­cent­age points since last Jan­uary, the largest drop of any of the Repub­li­can can­di­dates.

The Des Moines Reg­is­ter/Bloomberg Pol­i­tics poll found that Paul had strong

sup­port among Repub­li­can vot­ers younger than 45 but that his over­all sup­port had slipped in re­cent months.

Paul clashed openly Sun­day in the Se­nate with his fel­low Ken­tucky se­na­tor, Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as with the 2008 Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee, Sen. John McCain of Ari­zona. McCain tried for a time to block Paul from speak­ing.

On Mon­day, the de­bate gained an­other voice as Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham of South Carolina, a long­time McCain ally, for­mally en­tered the race for the GOP nom­i­na­tion with an an­nounce­ment fo­cused al­most ex­clu­sively on for­eign pol­icy and de­fense is­sues.

Paul’s sup­port­ers as­sert that his strong stands will help his can­di­dacy, even with some vot­ers who dis­agree with him.

“The Lind­sey Gra­hams may gnash their teeth” over Paul’s views, but vot­ers may also see his po­si­tion as one that comes from “a place of deep con­cern,” said Jesse Ben­ton, a long­time ad­vi­sor to Paul. “I’m not so sure we don’t ben­e­fit.”

What is clear is that the de­bate has gained in­ten­sity, di­vid­ing the party on an is­sue — na­tional se­cu­rity — that was once a source of elec­toral strength.

Gra­ham, a re­tired Air Force of­fi­cer who is one of his party’s lead­ing voices on de­fense, is po­si­tioned al­most as the anti-Paul, de­fend­ing the NSA at home and ad­vo­cat­ing an in­ter­ven­tion­ist for­eign pol­icy abroad.

With lit­tle sup­port in polls and a limited abil­ity to raise the money needed to quickly el­e­vate his na­tional pro­file, Gra­ham’s quest for the nom­i­na­tion is clearly a long shot.

But his home state pres­ence in South Carolina, which has one of the ear­li­est nom­i­nat­ing con­tests, will prob­a­bly give him the op­por­tu­nity to press other can­di­dates, par­tic­u­larly Paul, on se­cu­rity.

“Those who be­lieve we can dis­en­gage from the world at large and be safe by lead­ing from be­hind, vote for some­one else. I am not your man,” Gra­ham said af­ter a high school march­ing band in his home­town of Cen­tral, S.C., played the World War II-era fa­vorite “Boo­gie Woo­gie Bu­gle Boy.”

Amer­i­cans hold di­vided views about anti-ter­ror­ism ef­forts.

They have gen­er­ally op­posed the NSA’s broad data col­lec­tion ac­tiv­i­ties that are in­tended to root out ter­ror­ist plots, but Repub­li­cans in par­tic­u­lar have wor­ried about whether the gov­ern­ment is act­ing force­fully enough to pre­vent at­tacks.

Asked whether gov­ern­ment se­cu­rity poli­cies were go­ing “too far in re­strict­ing civil lib­er­ties” or “not far enough in pro­tect­ing the U.S.,” Repub­li­cans by a nearly 2-1 ra­tio said in a Jan­uary poll by the non­par­ti­san Pew Re­search Cen­ter that the gov­ern­ment was not go­ing far enough.

Self-iden­ti­fied con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­cans held that view 54% to 31%.

That marked a large turn­around from two years ago, when con­ser­va­tives were more likely to say they wor­ried about the gov­ern­ment in­fring­ing too much on civil lib­er­ties and when Paul’s star within the party was on the rise.

In ad­di­tion to the de­bate over anti-ter­ror­ism poli­cies and sur­veil­lance, Repub­li­cans are di­vided over how to re­spond to the rapid rise of the Is­lamic State mil­i­tant group in Syria and Iraq, as well as the le­gacy of the Iraq war

Po­ten­tial pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates and party of­fi­cials agree on crit­i­ciz­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion — ar­gu­ing that the pres­i­dent has been too pas­sive in re­spond­ing to the civil war in Syria and that he squan­dered U.S. gains in Iraq by not push­ing harder to keep troops there.

But they have less to say about what they would do dif­fer­ently.

Gra­ham has ad­vo­cated send­ing U.S. troops back to Iraq to bol­ster Iraqi units in the fight against Is­lamic State mil­i­tants, who have seized con­trol of much of the west­ern part of the coun­try as well as large chunks of neigh­bor­ing Syria.

In his an­nounce­ment Mon­day, he evoked for­mer Pres­i­dent Rea­gan’s slo­gan of “peace through strength,” which has long been a GOP main­stay.

He vowed to “take the fight” to the na­tion’s enemies, par­tic­u­larly in the Mid­dle East, and to “end this con­flict on our terms.”

“I want to be pres­i­dent to de­feat the enemies that are try­ing to kill us,” he said. “Se- cu­rity through strength will pro­tect us.”

Most other Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls have stopped short of ad­vo­cat­ing U.S. troops on the ground.

Jeb Bush, the for­mer Florida gover­nor, re­peat­edly stum­bled last month over his thoughts on the war in Iraq or­dered by his brother, Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush. In re­cent in­ter­views, he has ex­pressed skep­ti­cism about a re­newed U.S. troop pres­ence in the Mideast.

Sen. Marco Ru­bio (RFla.) has staked out a hawk­ish rhetor­i­cal po­si­tion, com­par­ing his ap­proach to fight­ing mil­i­tants with Liam Nee­son’s char­ac­ter in the film “Taken.”

“Have you seen the movie?” Ru­bio asked at a GOP event last month in South Carolina, para­phras­ing one of its sig­na­ture lines: “We will look for you, we will find you and we will kill you.”

But Ru­bio has gen­er­ally talked about air sup­port, rather than a role for ground troops.

Paul, by con­trast, re­cently ac­cused Gra­ham, McCain and other Repub­li­cans who sup­port arm­ing in­sur­gent groups in Syria of con­tribut­ing to the rise of the Is- lamic State group, also re­ferred to as ISIS.

“ISIS ex­ists and grew stronger be­cause of the hawks in our party, who gave arms in­dis­crim­i­nately, and most of those arms were snatched up by ISIS,” he said.

Gra­ham has done lit­tle to hide his dis­taste for Paul’s poli­cies. Gra­ham did not orig­i­nate the “wacko birds” la­bel for Paul and his al­lies — that was coined by McCain — but he might as well have.

Just over a week ago, Gra­ham was caught on cam­era rolling his eyes as Paul ob­jected to Se­nate ef­forts to con­tinue the NSA’s on­ces­e­cret col­lec­tion of records of Amer­i­cans’ tele­phone calls.

Paul re­turned the fa­vor by re­leas­ing a video de­nounc­ing the NSA pro­gram that ridiculed Gra­ham and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas for their sup­port of its sur­veil­lance, de­pict­ing Gra­ham as try­ing to read Amer­i­cans’ email while sit­ting in a 1997era car.

Jes­sica McGowan Getty Images

SEN. LIND­SEY GRA­HAM of South Carolina fo­cused al­most en­tirely on for­eign pol­icy and de­fense is­sues in for­mally join­ing the Repub­li­can race for pres­i­dent.

Drew Angerer Getty Images

SEN. RAND PAUL of Ken­tucky has clashed with Repub­li­can lead­ers over his at­tacks on the NSA and his call for a less in­ter­ven­tion­ist for­eign pol­icy.

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