WASHINGTON — As chaos roils Egypt, Republican lawmakers and the GOP's potential presidential candidates are divided over President Barack Obama's response though united in concern that an Islamic regime could rise to power in a nation that is an important U.S. ally in the precarious Middle East.
Compared with recent verbal sparring on domestic issues, the debate between Democrats and Republicans on Egypt is somewhat muted. That's perhaps because the two parties differ little over U.S. policy toward Egypt. Both view the country as a linchpin to a peaceful Middle East. And while supportive of democracy there, both also express concern about the influence of extremists in a post-Mubarak government, a particular worry of Israel.
Trying to set the tone for their party, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the country's two top elected Republicans, have deferred to the Democratic president. They are signaling an unwillingness among the GOP leadership in Congress to pick a fight, in line, at least on this issue, with the tradition that politics stops at the waters' edge in the midst of foreign crises.
"America ought to speak with one voice," said McConnell.
Even so, the party's potential presidential hopefuls have taken a range of different tacks — some more confrontational — on a crisis that could dramatically alter U.S. foreign policy beyond Obama's administration.
Some, led by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, are assailing Obama as they try to draw a sharp line with the Democrat on what could end be a major issue in his 2012 re-election campaign. But the critics have given few — if any — hints about what they would do differently.
Gingrich says of the Obama administration, "I don't think they have a clue," comparing the incumbents to the White under President Jimmy Carter following the collapse of Iran's government. "It's very frightening to watch this administration."
But others, including the often-vocal Sarah Palin, have been silent. And a few, like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, are treading carefully as each day of demonstrations in Egypt brings more turmoil.
At the same time, Obama's rival from 2008, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, went further than the administration in pointedly calling for Mubarak to transfer power to a caretaker government immediately. He also expressed concerns about "the influence of extremist organizations" and the Muslim Brotherhood rising to power. And, one day after meeting with Obama in the Oval Office on a range of issues, McCain, R-Ariz., also said the U.S. "must do a better job of encouraging democracy" in the Middle East.
The overall generally subdued GOP reaction could change, however. Republicans are watching how Obama handles the crisis and are likely to pounce if uncertainty in Egypt lingers, raising worries about Israel's security and the fate of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. In that sense, Gingrich's remarks may signal the first salvo of criticism.
Until now, foreign affairs has taken a backseat to domestic issues — most notably stubbornly high unemployment — throughout Obama's administration and during last fall's midterm elections in which the GOP rose to power in the House and gained seats in the Senate. Even as Obama has overseen two wars and pushes for a Middle East peace accord, Republicans have largely ceded foreign policy ground to him on Iraq and Afghanistan.
Iraq, to be sure, was a campaign issue in 2008. But, so far, Afghanistan has not emerged as a divisive partisan subject because Republicans largely agree with what Obama has done there. Whether Afghanistan becomes a hot issue in 2012 may depend on what Obama does between now and then in terms of reducing troop strength.
Instead of fighting over foreign policy, the GOP spent the better part of two years challenging Obama on his stateside policies. Republicans embraced topics where the ideological contrasts in governing between Democrats and the GOP were stark.
But over the past week, the crisis in Egypt pushed America's foreign policy to the forefront. That, as well as the attempted assassination of an Arizona congresswoman last month, overshadowed partisan debates that the GOP was itching to have on the country's rising debt and Obama's new health care law.
The shift comes just as Republican presidential hopefuls are weighing whether they have the chops to take on Obama and seeking to bolster their foreign policy credentials with visits to the Middle East.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is heading to Israel, this weekend, on the heels of a trip by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
While there, Huckabee suggested Obama was being reckless toward Israel by nudging Mubarak to cede power, saying: "The United States' deafening silence toward not even acknowledging any role that he may have played in a peaceful border, between Egypt and Israel, is what's of great concern."
Back stateside, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum called the Obama administration "clueless," and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said it appeared to be "caught off guard and surprised and confused."
But Barbour took a pass, saying: "I don't want to be critical of them."
And Romney largely refrained, too. He also sidestepped a question about whether Mubarak should step down immediately, saying: "The real objective I think has been met and that is that the people of Egypt are going to have a democracy."
On Capitol Hill, McConnell, R-Ky., is rarely one to hold his tongue when given a chance to assail the White House. But he did this time, saying only: "We have one president and one secretary of state, and I think they ought to speak for America with regard to the crisis in the Middle East."
Boehner, R-Ohio, went even further, praising the Obama administration response and calling for the U.S. to continue supporting Egypt's move to democracy, adding: "What we don't want are radical ideologies to take control of a very large and important country in the Middle East."
Associated Press Writer Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Miss., contributed to this report.