WASHINGTON — From shuttering mosques and spying on Muslims in the United States to blocking Syrian refugees, Republican presidential contenders are trying to outdo each other with tough talk about immigrants in the wake of the Paris terror attacks.
The red-meat rhetoric is aimed squarely at the conservative GOP base, especially a block of states in the South that, because of changes to the primary election calendar, vote en masse in March and promise to exert a stronger influence in selecting a nominee in 2016.
In a prominent example, Donald Trump fired up a crowd of 10,000 people this week in the March 1 primary state of Tennessee by declaring he would “bomb the [expletive]” out of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, or ISIL.
“People were lapping it up like Alpo,” said Bob Davis, a Republican strategist and former state party chairman in Tennessee. “He got the crowd all amped up. It was quite the show.”
Other GOP candidates, in campaign appearances across South Carolina, Texas, and elsewhere, also are advocating for a stronger military and closed borders.
Jeb Bush, in a speech at The Citadel in the early primary state of South Carolina Wednesday, tried to position himself as a hawkish commander in chief, calling for more American ground troops in Syria and Iraq.
“The United States should not delay in leading a global coalition to take out ISIS with overwhelming force,” Bush said at the famed military college.
Last week’s coordinated attacks by the Islamic State that left 129 dead thrust foreign affairs and immigration into the center of the presidential campaign. Conservatives in the large field of candidates will naturally play to anti-immigrant sentiments in the South, say strategists and observers.
“Closing the borders has always been the first phrase out of every politician’s mouth here,” said J. David Woodard, a GOP consultant in South Carolina who runs the Palmetto Poll from Clemson University. “This rhetoric about how they’re here to kill us and that kind of stuff does well.”
President Obama, during a press conference in Manila on Wednesday, accused Republicans of “playing on fear in order to try to score political points or to advance their campaigns.” He warned their harsh rhetoric would serve as a “potent recruitment tool” for the Islamic State.
“I was proud when the attacks in Boston took place, and we did not resort to fear and to panic. Boston Strong,” Obama said. “People went to the ballgame that same week, and sang the national anthem, and went back to the stores and went back to the streets. That’s how you defeat ISIL. Not by trying to divide the country, or suggest somehow that our tradition of compassion should stop now.”
Trump, who has no experience in foreign policy, has improved his standing as the national and early-state front-runner in some polls after the Paris attacks.
A new WBUR poll in New Hampshire showed Trump leading by 11 points, widening the gap from his three-point lead a month ago, over Ben Carson and Marco Rubio.
Economic anxieties and fears of threats abroad have stoked a wave of nativism in the presidential campaign. Trump launched his campaign in June with a direct appeal to people’s fears about immigration, branding Mexicans as rapists and calling for a wall at the border to block migrants. He quickly shot to the top of the GOP primary polls.
The billionaire reality TV star drew cheers in Knoxville, Tenn., Monday when he said, “I want to make our military so strong, so powerful, so incredible, we’ll never have to use it. Nobody is going to mess with us.”
Trump’s swagger resonates particularly with Tennessee Republicans who feel the Obama administration has not taken a tough enough stance, said Ryan Haynes, Tennessee Republican Party chairman, who attended the speech.
In July a Kuwaiti-born gunman killed four Marines and a Navy officer at a naval reserve center in Chattanooga, Tenn. While the gunman, shot dead by police, was Muslim, federal agents did not find evidence to link the attack to the Islamic State.
Haynes criticized Obama’s response to the attack as tepid.
“It was very frustrating for our citizens when we had a president who refused to call it Islamic terrorism,” Haynes said. “Donald Trump has tapped into that anger.”
Of demands to block refugees fleeing Syrian violence, Haynes said: “Common sense tells us that when there is a leak in your house, the first thing you do is shut off the spigot.”
Among GOP candidates for president who addressed the refugee issue, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas called allowing Muslim refugees from Syria into the United States “nothing short of lunacy.” Ben Carson advocated putting refugees already in this country under surveillance. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey said he would bar even Syrian “orphans under 5” from entering the country. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has said no more Syrian refugees, reversing an earlier stance.
“There is a sense of worry on the ground in the South about refugees,” said Jason Husser, assistant director of the Elon University Poll in North Carolina. “The xenophobic talk, the rhetoric of threat, can activate the Republican base.”
Governors from more than two dozen states, including Massachusetts, have said they would reject resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states. In Congress, House Republicans are crafting a bill to halt Obama’s plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States over the next year.
But some GOP strategists caution against letting the nativist bluster go too far.
“As Republicans we need to be careful with our rhetoric,” said Henry Barbour, a political consultant from Mississippi. “We need to watch our tone so it doesn’t look like we’re opposed to certain groups of people other than terrorists.”
Tracy Jan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @TracyJan.