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Will GOP candidates’ strikingly hawkish stances alienate voters?

LAS VEGAS — There were calls to ‘‘carpet bomb’’ gathering places of Islamic State fighters and kill family members of suspected terrorists. There were proposals to arm Kurdish forces, shoot down a Russian jet if it was to fly over a no-fly zone, and shut down the Internet in global hot spots. And there were suggestions of banning Muslims from entering the United States and monitoring activity inside mosques.

The presidential debate here this week crystallized the Republican Party’s growing consensus around a strikingly hawkish response to the threat from Islamic State terrorists as the candidates vividly channeled the alarm and fear coursing through the GOP base.


‘‘America is at war,’’ Senator Ted Cruz of Texas declared in his opening statement. ‘‘Our enemy is not violent extremism. It is not some unnamed malevolent force. It is radical Islamic terrorists. . . . If I am elected president, we will hunt down and kill the terrorists. We will utterly destroy ISIS.’’

Using bellicose language at a moment of pitched voter anxiety, many of the candidates committed themselves to a confrontational set of policies that, while energizing conservative activists, could prove difficult to carry out internationally and poses the risk of a backlash from war-weary swing voters next fall.

Thomas H. Kean, a former New Jersey governor who chaired the 9/11 Commission, said the candidates were probably reacting to the suddenly hawkish mood of the electorate that is showing up in polls.

But Kean warned: ‘‘You can get locked into some of these positions if you get elected. It all sounds fine now in a primary, but Republicans might be sorry at the end of the year if they’re in the White House and the new president has to adjust to changing circumstances.’’

Pollster Geoff Garin, who advises a super PAC backing Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, said the GOP debate opens the door for Clinton to be ‘‘the strong and steady grown-up in the room.’’


‘‘What [voters] appreciate in a presidential leader is quiet strength, and what they heard last night was a ton of dangerous bluster,’’ Garin said Wednesday. ‘‘Being the party of military adventurism may be passable politics for their nominating process, but it is very likely to cause lots of doubts and concerns in a general election.’’

The GOP hopefuls on the debate stage painted a dark and frightening portrait of the homeland’s security, warning that the military is not equipped to wage war against terrorists and that no community is safe after recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.

The candidates portrayed President Obama as feckless and unknowing and posited that the Islamic State could be extinguished if only America’s president were more decisive and used massive force.

‘‘Look, we need toughness. We need strength,’’ said Donald Trump, the billionaire mogul and national GOP front-runner.

The problems the United States confronts around the world are more complicated than the candidates portrayed them, however, with global consequences that would ripple from each action. For example, arming the Kurds, which many candidates supported, would alienate Turkey, which is a key US ally in the Syrian conflict and is opposed to creating a de facto Kurdish state.

But the CNN debate also exposed fault lines among the candidates — especially over the breadth of federal surveillance and counterterrorism programs. One of the most meaningful divisions surfaced on the subject of military interventions in the Middle East since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Some candidates, including Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, said the United States has a moral and pragmatic obligation to maintain a forceful presence abroad. But Trump and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, condemned past interventions in the Middle East.