Republican voters face a choice: Do they want to play it safe, or do they feel like taking risks?
For those choosing option one, the obvious candidate is
, whose cautious but uninspiring campaign has attracted the support of roughly 1 in 4 Republican voters, but who can't seem to rise above that ceiling. The second, more adventurous alternative is offered by
, whose edgy conservatism has boosted him to front-runner status alongside Romney, but who now faces the test of making his sometimes unorthodox views palatable to a larger audience.
The choice was on vivid display this week at the Republican foreign policy debate in Washington.
In earlier debates, foreign policy was mostly an opportunity for the candidates to join in bashing
. They denounced him as too weak, too worried about what foreigners think, too easy on
and too hard on
. (Never mind that he escalated the war in
, increased the number of drone attacks in
; for most Republican candidates, a Democratic president can't be hawkish enough.)
On Tuesday, the candidates stopped lambasting Obama just long enough to have a genuine foreign policy debate, and it revealed clear differences between the two leading candidates.
Romney's foreign policy represents the Republican mainstream. The former Massachusetts governor wants more defense spending and a bigger Navy. He advocates sending more U.S. ships to the Persian Gulf to intimidate Iran into halting its nuclear weapons research and says he would consider military action as a last resort. And though he has criticized Obama's timetable for troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, he basically endorses the rest of the administration's strategy, including a drawdown of most forces by 2014.
Gingrich is less conventional. He says he won't rule out cuts in military spending. "It's clear that there are some things you can do in defense that are less expensive," he said in Tuesday's debate. (Or, as he put it in an earlier debate, "I'm a hawk, but a cheap hawk.")
His policy prescriptions sometimes sound like action-movie screenplays. He says the best way to stop Iran's nuclear program is by sending secret agents to sabotage
gasoline refinery while forcing a collapse in the price of oil through increased U.S. production. And he says the war in Afghanistan should be widened, with "hot pursuit" raids by U.S. ground troops into Pakistan. "You tell the Pakistanis: Help us or get out of the way, but don't complain if we kill people you're not willing to go after on your territory," he said.
The contrast even appeared when the candidates were asked what future threats kept them awake at night. Romney chose a careful, conventional response: the growing power of China, terrorists in Latin America. Gingrich headed straight for the new terrors of the high-tech future: cyber attacks and the threat of electromagnetic pulse.
Poor Romney. He's tried all year to sound hawkish. He's denounced Obama (inaccurately) for "apologizing for America," and he has vowed to preserve American strength. He's promised to visit Israel on his first foreign trip as president and pledged that if he's elected, Iran "will not have a nuclear weapon."
And now he's in danger of being trumped by Gingrich, whose impatience is in stark contrast to Romney's careful policy statements. "If we were serious, we could break the Iranian regime, I think, within a year," Gingrich said. "There are lots of things you can do if you decide to break out of the current mindless bureaucracy of this city and just get the job done."
It's not clear, of course, that Gingrich's breezily confident proposals would work in the real world. Can the United States really increase energy production enough to collapse the price of oil in the short term? Wouldn't Iran view sabotage attacks on its gasoline refinery as acts of war, and respond accordingly? And would Pakistan, already touchy about U.S. drone attacks, accept ground incursions by U.S. troops without shooting back?
Gingrich also needs to sell skeptical
voters on some of his domestic ideas, such as his proposal on Tuesday that illegal immigrants be offered a "red card" — a permit to work in the United States without a promise of permanent residence or citizenship.
There are others in the debate too. Former Utah Gov.
Jr. has been arguing for lower defense spending, fewer military commitments and more focus on the domestic economy and foreign trade. And Texas
has remained the libertarian gadfly in the race, insisting that most military and diplomatic engagement overseas is a waste of money. But there's no sign that GOP voters are turning their way.
Most Republican primary voters aren't likely to base their presidential choices on the weedy specifics of the candidates' foreign policy positions; this election is still mostly about domestic economic issues. But they will ask themselves which candidate seems more reassuring as a commander in chief.
Will they choose Romney's blandness or Gingrich's pugnacity?