Does The GOP Have A National Security Candidate?

Active duty and retired members of the military are an important voting bloc in Florida, which holds its primary Tuesday. But which of the remaining four GOP candidates best represents the issues of military voters?

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Active duty and retired military personnel make up about a quarter of Florida's Republican voters. In past elections, that might've been an advantage for a candidate like John McCain. This time around, several Republican candidates talked tough on foreign policy, but none has emerged as the national security candidate. NPR's Debbie Elliott has more.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The Romney camp brought some military might to a Pensacola rally over the weekend - Senator John McCain.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Thank you very much. Thank you, Thank you all. Can I say thanks for coming out...

ELLIOTT: The former POW practically enjoys favorite son status here, having trained at Naval Air Station Pensacola.

MCCAIN: My grandfather got his Navy wings here. I got my wings here. My son Jack, who was a Navy pilot, got his wings here.

ELLIOTT: According to exit polls from the 2008 Florida primary, McCain won the military vote over Romney by a 42 to 35 percent margin. Now, McCain is trying to help Romney pull in that vote on Tuesday.

MCCAIN: I have every confidence, with Mitt Romney as the president, just as Ronald Reagan after Jimmy Carter, that Mitt Romney will restore this nation's strength and prestige around the world.

ELLIOTT: Romney regularly pays tribute to veterans at campaign events and promises that they would be cared for in his administration. In Pensacola, Romney decried President Obama for what he called a pretty please foreign policy.

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MITT ROMNEY: I will make sure that our military is so strong that no one in the world would ever think of testing it.

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ELLIOTT: Newt Gingrich also reaches out to military voters, even giving them this shout-out during the last debate.

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NEWT GINGRICH: I'm delighted to be in Jacksonville, which will be the site of the next nuclear aircraft carrier battle group.

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ELLIOTT: He talks of growing up in a military family and campaigns on a hard-line approach to foreign policy.

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GINGRICH: The fact is that we are faced with enemies who would enjoy killing us.

ELLIOTT: He ties national security to economic security.

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GINGRICH: First, if we're going to have an effective long-term foreign policy, we have to get the American economy growing again. We have to create jobs. We have to put Americans back to work.

ELLIOTT: As for the other two candidates, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum vows not to cut military spending. And the only candidate who ever wore a uniform, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, wants to shrink the U.S. military footprint around the world.

At the veterans rally for Romney in Pensacola, voters had a hard time singling out which of the candidates has the strongest voice for the military.

DAVID SNYDER: I sort of hold them on equal footing on national security and international relations.

ELLIOTT: Retiree David Snyder of Navarre, Florida worked for a defense contractor when he left the Air Force. Electability is the issue for him. He's a Gingrich fan, but says he's considering voting for Romney.

SNYDER: I guess primarily the candidate with the best chance of winning. But he's not my first pick.

ELLIOTT: And that's a sentiment you hear often from Florida Republicans, aware that their state is an important test of how the GOP race will shape up.

Army veteran Dan Wood of Pensacola thinks Gingrich is the strongest candidate, but believes Romney is best-suited to beat President Obama. Wood says none of the candidates is really talking about national security the way he'd like.

DAN WOOD: They think that a strong military is national security, and there's a lot more involved than that.

ELLIOTT: Other vets here were concerned that Gingrich might not have the right temperament for the Oval Office. Reginal Knutti of Pensacola is a 77-year-old Army vet who had a second career as a civilian with the Navy here.

REGINAL KNUTTI: You need a strong leader, commander-in-chief, has to be strong, and one that is willing to stand up to our adversaries, terrorists - whatever. However, there still has to be a diplomatic way before you start firing the weapons. I was afraid Newt would be a little too aggressive.

ELLIOTT: If Gingrich has to overcome questions about his temperament with older vets, his economic message resonates with the younger generation here. Former Navy pilot Sean Kramer, who is 29, says foreign policy is not his top concern. The economy is.

SEAN KRAMER: Being a recent veteran out into the civilian world, and it's hard finding jobs out there right now.

ELLIOTT: Kramer says he's tired of all the talk during this campaign about Ronald Reagan. He says Republicans need a leader who looks to the future.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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