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ISIS, Refugees Elevate National Security Issues In U.S. Campaign


Today's news that a planner of the Paris attacks is confirmed dead is a milestone in this story but not the end. The fight against the self-described Islamic State will continue in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. The fight over the consequences of that war continues here in the United States. And it's affecting the presidential campaign. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson has been listening to the candidates, and she's on the line. Mara, good morning.


INSKEEP: So President Obama challenged his critics at the beginning of the week. He said if people wanted to pop off - his words - they should offer a specific plan. What have Republican candidates come up with?

LIASSON: Well, not surprisingly, Republicans are extremely critical of President Obama. They know the public is unhappy with him, and he gets poor marks for his handling of terrorism. But when it comes to what they'd do differently, there are a range of responses from Republicans. Donald Trump has the simplest and most bellicose answer. He says he'd bomb the expletive deleted out of them. Jeb Bush would arm the Kurds, create a no-fly zone, step up the airstrikes and more special forces. Some of those things, the president is already doing now. Several Republicans have said they'd willing to put boots on the ground but, with the exception of Lindsey Graham, who said he wants 10,000, they haven't said specifically how many. And all the Republicans say they either want to stop Syrian refugees from coming into the U.S. or restrict resettlements to Christian refugees.

INSKEEP: That has become a hot button debate here in the United States. So many governors have said they don't want Syrian refugees in their states, even though there's doubt that they have any legal right to keep them out, provided that the United States government lets the refugees in. What is the backdrop that has made that such an intensive issue?

LIASSON: Well, it's interesting because the main issue in the Republican race was around illegal immigration, of course, from Mexico and Central America. But now, it's morphed into a debate about resettling these Syrian refugees. And it's become - immigration has now become the main subject in the discussion about national security. And at a time when it's hard to come up with a specific plan to defeat ISIS, it is easier to say that you want to stop Syrian refugees from coming into the countries, especially because one of the attackers in Paris came in with the influx of refugees from Syria.

INSKEEP: Now, you have to ask the political question. Are there some, of the many, Republican candidates who gain more than others when the subject shifts to these topics?

LIASSON: Well, you know, the interesting thing about this is there were a lot of predictions after the attacks that this would change the dynamic of the Republican race. This would be a tipping point. The angry outsiders without foreign policy experience would fade, and Republicans would look to more experienced candidates, more plausible commanders in chief. That hasn't happened. Like every other piece of conventional wisdom this year, it's been wrong. The latest polls do show Donald Trump gaining. And Ben Carson, who's had some trouble coming up with answers to ISIS, has slipped. A Fox poll in New Hampshire and another WBUR poll show Trump on top. In the Fox poll, he has twice as much support as the second candidate, Marco Rubio. So maybe bomb the blank out of them sounds pretty good to Republican voters right now.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about what Democrats are saying. Now, Bernie Sanders has a speech today where he's going to focus on what he means by Democratic socialism. So Sanders' still focused on his economic issues. What is Hillary Clinton saying?

LIASSON: Well, today, Hillary Clinton is going to give a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. And according to her campaign, she's going to lay out a plan for defeating ISIS, disrupting their financial infrastructure, hardening our defenses. This really is a chance for her to lay out her credentials to be commander in chief. And she's going to try to succeed in a balancing act, show that she's different from the president - tougher, a little more hawkish - but without sounding critical of him. And she has a chance to position herself to the right of Sanders, a little more tougher and more hawkish than the president, but to the left of the most bellicose Republicans. And I think that's probably the sweet spot for her.

INSKEEP: Mara, thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson talking with us on this Thursday morning in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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