WASHINGTON -- In what promises to be a crowded field of Republican presidential candidates, there is a growing sense that a 2012 contender could distinguish himself or herself by giving voice to the skepticism many in the party feel about the Afghanistan war. It may not in the end be a recipe for victory -- more a gateway to a somewhat-isolationist segment of the base that prizes "truth-telling" on foreign policy matters. But if the 2008 presidential race was any indication, there's a brewing anti-Afghanistan war sentiment within the conservative movement that a candidate could capitalize on.
"There's a great opportunity for a Republican to distinguish themselves by taking a strong position on bringing the troops home from Afghanistan," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a strong critic of the war who has advocated -- and voted for -- redeployment. "It's a very conservative position. It will unite the right and the left, and it would certainly play well to independents."
Chaffetz isn't alone in his party, but he is in the minority -- at least of those who are willing to speak up. In July, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele suggested that the United States should reduce its role in the war. He learned the price of breaking with party orthodoxy and retracted his comments after being criticized by the members of the party who firmly back the U.S. effort in Afghanistan.
George Will, someone whose conservative bona fides are a bit more well-regarded than Steele's, gave voice to this silent minority in September, when he wrote a column titled, "Time for the U.S. to Get Out of Afghanistan." Other Republicans who have become skeptical of the war effort include Ann Coulter, Joe Scarborough, Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (Calif.).
In the 2008 presidential race, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) became a bit of a phenomenon, capturing more financial support and excitement than anyone expected. He was known for his libertarian streak, criticism of the Federal Reserve, and harsh criticism of the war in Afghanistan. In fact, he goes even further than many Democrats and is a non-interventionist who also opposed the Iraq invasion.
But Republican pollster David Winston cautioned that money and visibility don't necessarily translate into votes, and right now, the party still largely supports the war.
"I think generally, within the party on the Republican side, there's a sense that if we're going to succeed in the war on terror, one of the specific items we have to have success on is Afghanistan," said Winston. "So the two are intertwined."
So far, the field of 2012 GOP candidates seems to be hewing to the traditional party line on the war. A few possible contenders who are currently governors and therefore don't deal as much with national security -- people like Rick Perry in Texas and Bobby Jindal in Louisiana -- have less of a clear position on the issue.
Chaffetz told The Huffington Post in an interview on Wednesday that he hasn't yet heard of any possible candidates in the GOP agreeing with him on Afghanistan but insisted that moving away from standard talking points could be a winning issue.
"No one wants to take a vote to appear they're soft on the war on terror, but I beg to differ with some of the perceptions," said Chaffetz. "Bringing our troops home is a winning position. I think it's where America is at on this. We're still going to have a fight a global war on terror, but 100,000 troops in Afghanistan is not necessarily going to solve our problems."
That principled conservative stand has support among constitutionalists. Howard Phillips is founder of the Constitution Party and served in the Reagan administration. He is now chairman of The Conservative Caucus, a public policy advocacy group in Virginia, and strongly supports withdrawing from Afghanistan. He stressed that his group is not anti-war but against the operations in Afghanistan and believes the money being spent there should instead be used toward rebuilding the Navy and the Air Force.
"We had a meeting in Forth Worth, Tex. a few weeks ago and unanimously passed a resolution that the United States should immediately get out of Afghanistan," said Phillips, saying that more than 100 people from all over the country were in attendance. "There's no support among constitutional constitutional conservatives."