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Clash of priorities defines debate as ’16 campaign takes off

June 2, 2015 GMT
FILE - In this May 30, 2015 file photo, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks in Nashville, Tenn. Bush opens his quest for the White House with much to prove. Six months after signaling serious interest in a possible run, the son of one president and brother of another has accumulated a record-breaking war chest approaching $100 million, activated a national political network and pioneered a new approach to presidential campaigns.  (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig, File)
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FILE - In this May 30, 2015 file photo, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks in Nashville, Tenn. Bush opens his quest for the White House with much to prove. Six months after signaling serious interest in a possible run, the son of one president and brother of another has accumulated a record-breaking war chest approaching $100 million, activated a national political network and pioneered a new approach to presidential campaigns. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig, File)
1 of 8
FILE - In this May 30, 2015 file photo, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks in Nashville, Tenn. Bush opens his quest for the White House with much to prove. Six months after signaling serious interest in a possible run, the son of one president and brother of another has accumulated a record-breaking war chest approaching $100 million, activated a national political network and pioneered a new approach to presidential campaigns. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — Listen to the Republican candidates for president and they’ll tell you the U.S. faces a dire threat from terrorism, and is on the brink of falling victim to Islamic State militants.

“I’m afraid some Americans have grown tired of fighting them,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said Monday when kicking off his campaign. “I have bad news to share with you: the radical Islamists are not tired of fighting you.”

Meanwhile, in a Democratic field topped by the former top U.S. diplomat, foreign policy rarely comes up. Instead, Hillary Rodham Clinton and her peers see a nation crippled by economic anxiety, where financial titans grow ever richer and everyday families struggle to keep pace.

“Nobody expects everything to come easy,” Clinton said during a recent campaign event in South Carolina. “But it shouldn’t be quite so hard to get ahead and stay ahead in America.”

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As the presidential campaign starts to move past the question of who is and isn’t running for the White House, the two parties find themselves setting out on sharply divergent paths to Election Day. While Clinton visits the early voting states, rarely mentioning her experience as a former secretary of state, her would-be Republican challengers fly to Israel and Poland, eager to gain a foreign policy edge in a crowded primary contest.

“Hillary Clinton is in a complete box on foreign policy,” said Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus. “Eventually she’s going to have to talk about what she did and didn’t do abroad to further the position of our country and improve the safety of our people.”

Yet Clinton’s Democratic challengers don’t see it that way. Rather than talk about foreign affairs as a way to criticize Clinton, they’ve joined with her to focus on pocketbook issues. Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders described a “rigged economy” and argued the country’s “grotesque level of inequality is immoral.” Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley got into the race last weekend with a message to the “bullies of Wall Street” and promises to “to rebuild the truth of the American dream.”

The only Democrat driven by foreign policy is former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, and even then, his primary concern is Clinton’s vote in favor of the Iraq war in 2002.

So far, Clinton’s campaign has felt little need to stress her international record, though aides are confident that she would beat out a less experienced Republican challenger on the issue. Her advisers argue the failing unemployment rate masks a lingering economic anxiety that’s remains voters core concern. The aides spoke on condition of anonymity, in order to brief reporters on campaign strategy.

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Republicans don’t ignore economic issues, but foreign policy has dominated their debate. That’s especially true in recent days, as the Senate considers extending surveillance powers granted to the National Security Agency, prompting the party’s candidates lash out at each other (and Clinton).

Republican Sen. Rand Paul has aggressively opposed the 9/11-era anti-terrorism tools and has used his push to end them as a way to raise money for his presidential campaign. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Paul and his supporters suffer from 9/11 amnesia, while Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said Monday that Paul’s efforts won’t help him in the Republican primaries.

Beyond their internal divisions over America’s place in the world, the GOP’s candidates are united in linking Clinton to President Barack Obama’s record overseas. They frequently describe the “Obama-Clinton record” on issues such as Syria’s civil war and the rise of the Islamic State group.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who plans to tour eastern Europe next month, said Clinton has been “riding shotgun for four years” as part of the Obama administration. “It’s her policies as well. And we will hold her to account,” he said while campaigning recently in Michigan.

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Peoples reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Julie Bykowicz and Emily Swanson in Washington and Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.

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This story corrects a typo in U.S. in the 3rd paragraph.

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Follow Lisa Lerer and Steve Peoples on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/llerer and http://twitter.com/sppeoples