Analysis: GOP Searches for Voice in Foreign Policy

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Byline: Matt Apuzzo Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- After years of Republicans dominating the politics of national security, this year's GOP presidential candidates are struggling to find a coherent national security argument against President Barack Obama.

On Saturday, in the first debate dedicated to security and foreign policy, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney took issue with Obama's plan for drawing down troops in Afghanistan but the dispute amounted to whether some forces should stay an extra few months. Texas Gov. Rick Perry called for sanctions against the Iranian central bank. Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman debated whether the World Trade Organization should investigate Chinese currency practices.

All of the candidates offered only incremental criticism of the Democrat who has racked up a string of security successes, a stark contrast to the with-us-or-against-us politics Republicans have used since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. If the debate made anything clear, it's that Republicans have lost-their go-to national security talking points, with Osama bin Laden's body somewhere in the Indian Ocean, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq drawing to a close and Obama expanding the use of unmanned spy planes to hunt terrorists.

"I don't think there's a very strong narrative," said Tony Fratto, who served as a White House and Treasury Department spokesman during the Bush administration. "Is it a significant issue for a majority of Republican voters? No. It's not."

And it's not hard to understand why.

The sluggish economy is at the top of voters' concerns and, thus, dominating the campaign conversation. National security and foreign policy issues have been all but absent from the Republican primary contest and, given that the 9 percent unemployment rate is showing no sign of significant improvement, it no doubt will shape the general election, as well. …