Going Rogue? GOP Candidates Show Shifting Stance on Afghanistan

Huntsman, Romney both support bringing troops home, as soon as possible.

ByABC News
June 16, 2011, 4:06 PM

June 17, 2011— -- Some Republican presidential candidates are charting a different course than their GOP counterparts on the war in Afghanistan, raising questions about ideological rifts before a crucial election cycle.

Jon Huntsman, who will announce his candidacy next week, openly questioned U.S. strategy in the war-torn nation in an interview with Esquire magazine.

"Should we stay and play traffic cop? I don't think that serves our strategic interests," the former Utah governor said.

Mitt Romney, the current frontrunner in the race, echoed similar sentiments in Monday's debate, saying "it's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes to our generals."

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty also said at a recent gathering of GOP activists that the United States should cut back its troops, depending on conditions on the ground, a different tune from his 2009 stance when he pushed President Obama to support a surge.

The viewpoints of the 2012 candidates mark a stark departure from 2008, when the issue of terrorism still ranked higher on Americans' agenda, and investing in the Afghanistan war, both monetarily and physically with more troops, was a strong policy stance for Republicans.

At the time, libertarian Ron Paul stood out as a pariah in his opposition to the war. But that has since changed.

The shift, some observers say, is not surprising, given that the public is increasingly getting wary of the prolonged war in Afghanistan, and the situation on the ground is considerably different than it was three years ago. The anger and uproar that resulted in the United States after the events of Sept. 11 has also subsided and is becoming less of a factor in political debates.

"Timing has a lot to do with it. It's been 10 years," said Republican strategist and ABC News consultant Torie Clarke. "I think you'll find a lot of very conservative Republicans are going to be saying, 'Hey we've given it everything we can, and it's time to get out of it.'"

At the same time, Republican candidates are also aiming to separate themselves from President Obama, who approved a surge in troops last year.

"I think it is easier for individual Republicans to start to make a break from standard orthodoxy, if you will, when their party isn't in power in the White House," Clarke said. "If you're a member of party that's in power in the White House, it's harder to advocate a big bold change. Republicans don't control the White House, so its easier for them to take those stance."

But the one challenge for the party is that these viewpoints don't just pit them against the Obama administration, it also puts them on a widely different spectrum than GOP lawmakers like Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and James Inhofe, R-Okla., who oppose a rapid drawdown of troops or a stringent timeline for complete withdrawal.

Graham was quick to say he was "incredibly disappointed" by Romney's comments on Monday.

That tension could be a problem for candidates, who must court the Republican establishment in the primaries first before facing voters. And the divergent views between the two groups places many candidates in an awkward position.

"It's a very difficult position. When you're a primary candidate you're trying to ride the fence pleasing those who want the troops to stay and according to the timeline, and those who want a fast withdrawal," said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. "So in trying to please everyone, you can run the risk of pleasing no one."

Still, with economy and jobs on the forefront of Americans' minds, 2012 candidates can risk a shift from the traditional Republican viewpoints.

"Riding the fence can offend some conservatives but if they have credible answers on getting us out of the economic mess that we're in, I think a lot of weight will be thrown in that direction by voters over the national security issues, because at this point troops are coming home," Bonjean said.