By Andy Sullivan
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md., Feb 28 (Reuters) - If this week was any indication, Republicans could spend much of the 2016 presidential election attacking Democrats as weak on national security, rather than focusing on the economic concerns that have preoccupied voters in recent years.
The shift reflects a changing political landscape as the U.S. economy has steadily added jobs while gruesome beheading videos by Islamic State and increasing conflict in countries such as Syria and Libya have revived Americans' concerns about security threats.
Such a focus also provides plenty of opportunities to attack Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic front-runner who as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013 was the public face of President Barack Obama's effort to emphasize diplomacy over armed confrontation.
At a gathering of conservative activists, potential Republican presidential candidates characterized that approach as naive at best. On Clinton's watch, the United States allowed Libya and Syria to slide into chaos while failing to contain the rise of new extremist groups like Islamic State, they said.
"Because of the Obama-Clinton foreign policy, our allies no longer trust us and our enemies no longer fear us," Florida Senator Marco Rubio told the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday. The annual gathering of conservative activists, known as CPAC, drew more than a dozen potential Republican candidates this year as the party gears up for the 2016 election.
Many of the dozen or so potential candidates who spoke at the conference just south of Washington portrayed Islamic State as a direct threat to U.S. domestic security, at times echoing the with-us-or-against-us rhetoric used by Republican President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
"We need a president, a leader, who will stand up and say we will take the fight to them and not wait till they bring the fight to American soil," Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said on Thursday.
Former Texas Governor Rick Perry called Islamic State the "the worst threat to freedom since communism," while Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum called for 10,000 U.S. ground troops to fight the militant Islamist movement.
Even Rand Paul, the libertarian-leaning Kentucky senator, sought to balance his skepticism of domestic surveillance and overseas military action with the need to confront Islamic State. "We must protect ourselves from jihadists without losing ourselves as a people in the process," he said.
The red-meat rhetoric plays to a Republican strength as the improving economy eases public concerns about job creation.
According to Reuters/Ipsos polling, 49 percent of Americans disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy in January, down from 55 percent in February of last year.
When Americans are asked which party has the better plan for dealing with terrorism, the Republican advantage over Democrats has widened from 2 percentage points to 8 percentage points over that period.
"When Americans are being beheaded on television it changes Americans' perspective," said Dave Bossie, president of Citizens United, a conservative group.
However, Republicans are not immune to overstepping on the issue.
Democrats have accused them of undermining national security by tying funding for the Department of Homeland Security to an effort to roll back Obama's executive action to shield several million immigrants from the threat of deportation.
RISK OF ALIENATING VOTERS
The renewed focus on security also risks alienating voters who view Bush's decisions to invade Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 as costly mistakes. Bush's approval ratings slumped in his final years in office as the Iraq War dragged on.
"I've seen too many American men and women dying for another country they don't even care about," said Daniel Jenkins, 28, an Iraq War veteran who handed out "Stand with Rand" buttons outside the hall.
Bush himself was not mentioned by name by any of the potential candidates - even his brother, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.
Several speakers, such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz, cast the conflict with Islamic State in religious terms, which could resonate in a party that counts evangelical Christians among its core supporters.
Though Republican candidates are likely to continue to call for tax cuts and a repeal of Obama's Affordable Care Act, the 2016 election may take on a tone not seen in years.
"Let's recognize that 2016 could be the first foreign policy national election since 1980. The world seems to become more dangerous by the day," said Indiana Governor Mike Pence. (Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Caren Bohan and Frances Kerry)