WASHINGTON // Republicans weighing a White House bid fiercely oppose a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia and stand in stark contrast to two presidents, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican George HW Bush, on a critical foreign policy issue.
Potential candidates are to the right of several prominent Republicans, including former Republican secretaries of state such as Condoleezza Rice as well as Senator Richard Lugar, an arms control expert and the top Republican lawmaker on the Foreign Relations Committee.
"It's an obsolete approach that's a holdover from the Cold War and a bilateral treaty without taking into account multilateral threats," former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich said yesterday, becoming the latest potential 2012 candidate to object to swift passage of the treaty without changes.
Mr Gingrich joins Sarah Palin and other outspoken critics of the pact. The bright line between would-be Republican challengers and the incumbent Democrat raises the likelihood that the New START treaty will become a 2012 issue and its success or failure will reverberate as the next presidential campaign takes shape.
Mr Bush gave the treaty's prospects a potentially significant boost yesterdayy, saying "I urge the United States Senate to ratify the START treaty."
The likely candidates' far-right positions on a major national security issue may play well in the Republican primaries where conservatives dominate. But the stances could make the eventual Republican nominee's pitch harder come the general election, when swing voters will be critical.
Mr Obama, conversely, is making moves that could appeal to independent voters.
The president is working across the aisle with Republican leaders in Congress to ensure that before lawmakers leave Washington for the holidays, the Senate ratifies the treaty he signed with Russia in the spring. The president also has indicated that the treaty is a higher priority than other issues his Democratic base cares about, including immigration reform and allowing gays to openly serve in the military.
Republican presidential hopefuls have weighed in on the treaty as Mr Obama put its ratification high on his wish list for Congress' lame-duck session.
Among their arguments against it: The treaty would limit missile defence as well as hamper the US nuclear and conventional weapons programs while giving Russia too much leeway. Several have called for the White House to wait until the new Congress convenes in January, when the Republican boosts its numbers in the Senate. That will make it tougher for Mr Obama to get the 67 Senate votes necessary for ratification.
"Why the hurry, Mr. President?" Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, asked last week in a Boston Globe column. "A treaty so critical to our national security deserves a careful, deliberative look by the men and women America has just elected."
South Dakota Senator John Thune called START "a deeply flawed treaty that would have far-reaching consequences for America's national security." He, too, called Mr Obama's insistence that it pass this year irresponsible.
And Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty objects to the treaty in part because "it's premised on the dangerous and naive belief that cuts in our nuclear weapons will somehow discourage proliferation by other regimes, when in fact the exact opposite result is more likely."
Although no Republican has formally entered the race and the election is still two years away, potential candidates are seeking to demonstrate their foreign policy chops to prove they can preserve the Republicans' perceived advantage on national security issues.