Will the Paris attacks shake up the US presidential race?

Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Top Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio (left), Ted Cruz and Donald Trump say current US policies have emboldened IS

The attacks in Paris have left presidential hopefuls scrambling to focus their message on the threat posed to the US by the so-called Islamic State. For many Republican candidates and their supporters, the violence illustrates what they see as a lack of leadership from President Barack Obama.

Most of the top-tier Republican candidates had already spoken at the Sunshine Summit in Orlando, Florida, on Friday when state party head Blaise Ingoglia took to the stage to tell the audience of conservative activists that a tragedy was unfolding thousands of miles away and ask for a moment of silence for the victims.

The crowd gasped at the news, and by the next day the Republican presidential candidates had thrown out their original scripts and shifted their focus to deal directly with the Paris attacks - and what they saw as the mistakes made by the current Democratic administration.

Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore told the BBC that he put the finishing touches on his new speech on the plane to Florida that morning.

"After this dramatic attack, I thought that the audience would want to know with my individual experience that was unique," he said, noting that he was governor during the 11 September attack on the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.

"I think that the Paris attacks are basically the 9/11 for France," he said. "It should be bringing to the forefront of the American people that we are at war, that we're still in danger, that if anything things have deteriorated under this administration."

Ohio Governor John Kasich said he didn't think it was a day for "long-winded remarks" or "political criticism or the blame game", but added that he saw the Paris attacks as a consequence of an American nation that has been unwilling to lead. He called for the US to organise a unified response from Nato nations.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul took aim at fellow presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, who he said co-operated with Democrats to block his proposed measure to provide "increased scrutiny" for those seeking to enter the US.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Ohio Governor John Kasich echoed other candidates, calling for more assertive American leadership

"One of the lessons we should learn from the tragedy in Paris is that we have to be very careful and very cautious, extraordinarily cautious, about who comes to visit, who emigrates here and who studies here," he said.

Carly Fiorina closed out the day with perhaps the sharpest criticism of the current administration.

"I am outraged because the murder, mayhem, danger and tragedy we see unfolding in Paris, throughout the Middle East and too often in our own homeland, are the direct consequence of this administration's policies," she said. "You cannot lead from behind."

Although the Paris attacks have renewed focus on international affairs in the presidential race, nearly every Republican candidate has made US Middle East policy - including the fight against IS, support for Israel and condemnation of the nuclear deal with Iran - a regular part of their stump speeches for months.

A deep-seated feeling that the US is gravely off course in foreign affairs is prevalent among Republican activists who have turned out to see candidates at presidential forums across the nation.

Not surprisingly, then, Sunshine Summit attendees said they felt that the Paris attacks only confirmed what they already knew about the dire state of world affairs.

"I don't think it's changed anything," said Carolyn Hogue. "We've known that was going to happen with Obama's policies. We've got to be strong and stop that. It brings it home.

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Image caption Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said "American leadership is essential"

Others argued that Paris is further evidence of the urgent need to defeat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

"I see the external threat from Isis, and I see that they're going to try to infiltrate American soil," said Ken Lewis, a Ted Cruz supporter. "First and foremost we need somebody that we trust as commander in chief, and that person cannot be Hillary Clinton."

On Saturday night the Democratic candidates were also forced to confront the Paris attacks, as Mrs Clinton, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley debated in Iowa.

Unlike the Republican candidates, however, the Democrats haven't spent much time on the campaign trail honing their rhetoric on foreign policy. Issues like income inequality, affordable college education and criminal justice have dominated the conversation, and even Mrs Clinton appeared to be on uncertain ground as she spoke about the threat posed by IS, saying that the US must "root out" IS, then that "it cannot be an American fight" but that "American leadership is essential".

Part of the challenge for Mrs Clinton, of course, is that her foreign policy credentials are so closely tied to the success of Mr Obama's current efforts to deal with the IS threat. If the American public decides that he's succeeding, she will prosper. If not, what was once thought to be a strength could end up a weakness.

By Sunday nearly every Republican candidate had weighed in on the Paris attacks.

"This is the war of our time, and we have to be serious in engaging and creating a strategy to confront it and take it out," former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said during a radio interview. He told CBS that the US should give preference to Christians when determining which Syrian refugees to protect.

Mr Cruz expressed a similar sentiment, saying that the US should only admit Christian refugees and said the Obama plan to admit "tens of thousands of Syrian Muslim refugees" was "lunacy". He also called for the US to use "overwhelming air power" in Syria and provide more arms to Kurdish forces.

Donald Trump told a crowd of supporters it would have been a "much, much different situation" in Paris if residents were allowed to carry guns and tweeted that his early demands for attacks on IS-controlled oil fields are being vindicated.

As for Mr Rubio, he released a video in which he called the fight against IS "a clash of civilizations. And either they win or we win."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Several candidates have criticised the White House's decision to accept larger numbers of Syrian refugees

Back in June, former UN Ambassador John Bolton told the BBC that 2016 was shaping up to be a foreign policy election.

"This is what I wanted, this is what I hoped for, this is what I predicted really," he said.

That was before the rise of Mr Trump and Mr Carson, and issues like immigration, government funding of Planned Parenthood and racial unrest came to take turns dominating the national conversation.

With Paris, US focus decidedly has shifted overseas. With several months until voting in the primaries begins, however, there's no telling whether it will stay there. The US public has a notoriously short attention span when it comes to foreign policy.

For now, though, most of the candidates are acting like this is ground on which the election will be fought.

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