GOP Hopefuls Clash on How to Win in 2016

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By Patrick O’Connor and Beth Reinhard

Paul and Rubio Stake Out Differing Approaches on Foreign Policy and Party-Building Tactics

Divisions on policy and party-building tactics already are emerging among the Republican Party’s field of potential presidential candidates, suggesting the shape the 2016 primary campaign will take.

The fault lines stem in large measure from a dispute about foreign policy and a debate between those who say the GOP can best win elections by recommitting to its most conservative positions and those who contend the better course is to find ways to extend the party’s appeal to new voter groups.

The focal points of the early jockeying are Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, who are staking out different policy ground ahead of expected White House bids.

Mr. Paul has criticized the Obama administration’s surveillance policies and other civil-liberties issues, going so far as to file suit against the administration over data collection by the National Security Agency. He also is calling for military spending cuts and a cautious approach to military intervention.

That puts Mr. Paul at odds with many top leaders and others in his party. “I don’t agree with him on foreign policy,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), like Mr. Paul a tea-party favorite and potential presidential candidate, on ABC this weekend.

But Mr. Paul’s policy profile is appealing to many in the GOP, including those who admired the libertarian bent of his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R., Texas). The younger Mr. Paul won a runaway victory in a symbolic straw poll last weekend of activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference, with 31%. Mr. Cruz trailed with 11% as the second-place finisher.

By contrast, Mr. Rubio has staked more traditional Republican positions, calling for a muscular foreign policy and saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine “cannot go unpunished.” In a speech Monday, Mr. Rubio outlined steps aimed at boosting the economy and innovation that included traditional GOP themes, such as measures to monitor the impact of government regulation.

“This is a really interesting time for the conservative movement and the Republican Party,” said Peter Wehner, a former policy adviser to presidential nominee Mitt Romney and to former President George W. Bush. The GOP for decades has promoted a large role for the U.S. in world affairs, “and Rand Paul is the first serious figure in the Republican Party in half a century or more who is attempting to challenge that in a serious way.”

Writing for the website Breitbart.com, Mr. Paul defended his foreign policy views as rooted in conservatism and tweaked others in the party for using the dispute between Russia and Ukraine to take a tougher stance in defense issues. “What we don’t need right now is politicians who have never seen war talking tough for the sake of their political careers,” he wrote.

Mr. Paul also has taken sides recently in the debate on how best to win elections. Like some others who spoke at CPAC, he said a commitment to conservative principles was paramount. “It isn’t good enough to pick the lesser of two evils…We must elect men and women of principle and conviction,” he said.

With that stance, Mr. Paul identified with a conservative wing of the party that includes 2012 candidate Rick Santorum, Mr. Cruz and others. “We’re told that we have to put aside what we believe is in the best interest of the country so a Republican candidate can win,” Mr. Santorum told the audience. “That may result in a win for a Republican candidate, but it will be a devastating loss for America.”

On the other side of the debate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said at CPAC the party needs a nominee who can win a general election, and Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) called on conservatives to set aside their narrow differences to focus on the big differences with Democrats.

The race to succeed President Barack Obama won’t begin in earnest until after November’s midterm elections, and the GOP field is expected to be a big one, including a number of governors whose positions on foreign policy and other topics remain unknown. But the pace of the early positioning will quicken all year. In April, Mr. Ryan, the 2012 GOP vice-presidential nominee, will headline a major fundraiser in the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa, and Messrs. Cruz and Paul will join others at a candidate forum in New Hampshire.

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