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Hillary Clinton’s global expertise a test for GOP hopefuls

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush (center right) and his wife, Columba, laid flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw, Poland.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush (center right) and his wife, Columba, laid flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw, Poland. Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Ben Carson traveled the world as a surgeon and tourist. He jets to Italy every year — but for vacation, not as an envoy. Donald Trump hopscotched the globe cutting resort deals, and then, the ribbons.

And of course there is Jeb Bush, who has been just about everywhere, but whose campaign so far is sputtering.

As the presidential campaign focuses on terrorism fears and foreign policy, Republican candidates are scrambling to bolster their credentials with briefing sessions and overseas trips.

Their ability to project authority at a foreign policy-themed debate Tuesday in Las Vegas could be crucial to the GOP’s hopes of capturing the White House.

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A Globe review of the foreign travel experience of each of the Republican candidates shows how each is disadvantaged in varying degrees to compete on global policy with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who traveled to 130 countries as first lady, US senator, and secretary of state.

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson visited Jordan last month.
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson visited Jordan last month.KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images/File

Even those who vehemently disagree with Clinton’s policy views don’t discount her deep experience, grasp of detail, and ability to adroitly brush off attacks.

“Who can take the bark off Hillary? She’s very thoughtful when she talks and she has a lot of depth,” said Scott Reed, a veteran Republican strategist who managed Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign. “From Christmas on, the race goes into a new phase. It’s about who do voters envision as being commander in chief. It’s not hot rhetoric; it’s not ideologically driven. But who do you imagine could be your commander in chief?”

Among the Republican front-runners, Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have used their relatively short time in the capital to embark on furious bursts of resume-building travel.

Trump scheduled what apparently would have been his first trip to Israel, but then canceled it after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States, an idea that has reaped international scorn.

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Trump frequently states that he is a friend of Israel — and even cut an ad for Netanyahu’s campaign in 2013 — but appears to be the only Republican candidate who has not visited the Holy Land. (There is no public evidence of Trump traveling there in the past; his campaign did not respond when asked multiple times).

Republican strategists say that the party is more than ready to take on Clinton. They contend that her record on foreign policy reveals ineffectiveness, even damage to US interests abroad. They plan to argue that the world became even more unstable on her watch. But the party will need a nominee who can level those critiques with a degree of credibility.

“If your foreign policy understanding is limited, you have a harder time combating Clinton,” said Peter Feaver, who worked on the Bush administration’s National Security Council and was involved in several Iraq strategy reviews. “Her record is very vulnerable. But it requires a certain amount of knowledge to go after it.”

Among some of the top Republican foreign policy advisers, there is growing apprehension that the party’s current front-runner would be ineffective at exposing the weaknesses they see in Clinton’s record.

“Trump, to the extent that he has cachet, is appealing to voters just based on xenophobia and bluster and nativism,” said Peter Wehner, a former adviser to President George W. Bush who is now at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “There is no coherence, there’s no world view there. It’s just stuff that he makes up at the moment.”

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“If Trump were the nominee, Clinton’s experience would help her, because I don’t think Trump could articulate the case very well against her,” he added. “If the choice is between someone who is a failure as a secretary of state and someone who comes across as a madman, who are you going to choose? You’d go with the failed secretary of state.”

Many Republican analysts initially expected this presidential campaign to be marked by a vigorous debate within the party between those espousing isolationist views and those arguing for a more robust American presence in world affairs.

But because of the recent terrorist attacks, many now believe the party will gravitate toward candidates who articulate a vision for more US involvement. Senator Rand Paul, perhaps the most passionate for cutting military spending and reducing the America’s global footprint, has struggled to gain traction.

“Travel is almost like ritualistic pilgrimage,” Feaver said. “A candidate has to show he’s serious by traveling abroad at some point. It’s part of passing the commander in chief test. It’s a very tricky test. You can be hurt in many different ways.”

US Senator Rand Paul, of Kentucky, prepared to perform cataract surgery in August while on a humanitarian mission to Haiti.
US Senator Rand Paul, of Kentucky, prepared to perform cataract surgery in August while on a humanitarian mission to Haiti.Dieu Nalio Chery/Associated Press/File/Associated Press

Mitt Romney discovered the perils of a foreign trip in 2012, when he had a gaffe-filled journey to London, Jerusalem, and Warsaw that raised questions about his ability to represent the United States on the world stage. In London, he said the city may not be prepared for the Olympics (triggering tabloid headlines of “Mitt the Twit”), while in Jerusalem he offended Palestinians by suggesting “culture” is a reason for their economic woes.

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Romney’s partisans argue that many of his warnings about Obama’s policies in Russia and the Middle East proved accurate during his second term. But symbolism — and public stumbles — proved to be more pivotal.

“There’s great value in the trips when done right, and great risk when done wrong. And we proved that in 2012,” said Kevin Madden, a top Romney adviser in 2012. “The images beamed back, with the controversy generated and headlines that resulted — it put us in a two-week news hole at a crucial time.”

The textured history of the current candidates’ travels can reveal much about them and their interests, far beyond the photo ops they will be soon seeking.

As a junior at Princeton University, the Canadian-born Cruz went to Hong Kong and Japan, where he climbed Mount Fuji and taught students how to debate. Jeb Bush met his wife during a high school trip to Mexico. Chris Christie agreed to his wife’s request to go to Paris in 2007 only when he realized he could combine a trip to the Louvre with a Bruce Springsteen concert.

“That kind of travel is formative in the sense of giving leaders perspective,” Feaver said. “How big is the globe? How small is the United States? How distinctive is the United States?”

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Bush has acted as an emissary for his presidential father and brother, traveling with then-secretary of state Colin Powell to tour a tsunami-damaged Indonesia in 2004. On Christmas Day in 1988, shortly before his father was inaugurated, Jeb Bush flew to Armenia and presented gifts to children affected by an earthquake.

Bush also spent part of his 20s living in Venezuela, working for Texas Commerce Bank. He undertook 15 foreign trade missions during eight years as Florida’s governor.

US Senator Marco Rubio, of Florida, spoke during a February 2013 visit to Jerusalem.
US Senator Marco Rubio, of Florida, spoke during a February 2013 visit to Jerusalem.Sebastian Scheiner/Associated Press/File

Rubio has kept a dizzying travel schedule over the last five years in the Senate, where he holds a seat on the Committee on Foreign Relations. He’s traveled in the Middle East to countries such as Libya and Jordan, to Asian countries including Japan and South Korea, and to hot spots like Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Rubio is almost universally praised for his ability to articulate positions on foreign policy.

“He comes across as the strongest and most knowledgeable on foreign policy,” Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary for President George W. Bush, said in an interview at a recent conference of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “He’s been very impressive, very fluent. And especially if Jeb continues to fare poorly, this group is up for grabs and Rubio will be the recipient of most of that support.”

The Globe requested from the campaigns lists of foreign trips that the candidates had taken throughout their lives. Those accounts were bolstered by reviews of Senate travel records and news reports.

Each of the candidates has been to Canada and the United Kingdom. Most have been to France, Italy, Germany, and Japan. Rubio, Bush, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, and Cruz have all been to Afghanistan. Only Bush and Huckabee have been to Iraq.

Carson, who has struggled to speak fluently on foreign affairs, is perhaps the most well-traveled. He’s been to nearly 60 countries. He practiced medicine in Perth, Australia; he has a school named after him at Babcock University in Nigeria; and he operated on Zambian twins in South Africa. Even in a Republican presidential field with two Cuban-Americans, he is the only candidate to see that country beyond the inside of Guantanamo.

Trump, during his travels, arrives with as much pomp and circumstance as a president. When the business mogul landed last year in Ireland, he was greeted by a trio of musicians including a harpist and violinist, attempting to be heard over the loud roar of his airplane.

His remarks overseas would be familiar to those following his campaign. “I know what you’re going to ask, so let me tell you,” he told an audience in Mumbai. “Yes, it’s my own hair.”

Donald Trump appeared with Ecuador’s then-president and his wife at the 2004 Miss Universe pageant in Quito, Ecuador.
Donald Trump appeared with Ecuador’s then-president and his wife at the 2004 Miss Universe pageant in Quito, Ecuador.MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images

Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mviser.