How the GOP Field Is Being Shaken Up by the Paris Attacks

Donald Trump tosses a hat to the crowd at a campaign event aboard the battleship USS Iowa at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, California, on September 15. His rivals for the Republican nomination say he's not qualified to be president, but voters don't seem to care. In New Hampshire, Republicans say Trump is best equipped to tackle the Islamic State, while in Iowa, 49 percent say he's ready to be the commander-in-chief. Max Whittaker/The New York Times/Redux

"Always in political campaigns there's this emphasis on new," New Jersey Governor Chris Christie lamented in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations on November 24. "New can be wonderful. It's shiny, it's perfect, it's untouched. But it's untested," the two-term governor and former federal prosecutor said. "New seems fabulous, until the moment comes when you need experience."

Christie and the more experienced Republican presidential candidates hope that moment is now. Lagging in the polls, they seek a resurgence after the Paris attacks. Conventional wisdom holds that when security is at stake, voters gravitate toward the adult in the room, and Christie former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich are eager to show they're the grown-ups.

But as has been the case so many times this year, the American electorate is defying expectations. The Paris attacks are clearly on the minds of GOP voters. A Boston Globe–Suffolk University poll of New Hampshire Republicans found a large plurality—42 percent—rated terrorism and national security as the No. 1 issue facing the country, far outpacing the usual answer: the economy. The problem for the self-professed adults? Granite State voters rated Donald Trump as the candidate "best equipped to handle the American response to the Islamic State," despite his unsubstantiated claim that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered the fall of the twin towers and his controversial call to bring back waterboarding. His rationale—"even if it didn't work, they deserved it"—seems to be in sync with the belligerent mood of many voters.

In Iowa, three-quarters of Republican voters support sending ground troops to fight ISIS, according to a new CBS News–YouGov poll. And 49 percent agreed that Trump is ready to be commander in chief, trailing only first-term Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

"Less than one term in the United States Senate has proven to be woeful training, woeful training, for the Oval Office," Christie said in his foreign policy speech, a shot at not just President Barack Obama but also Republican rivals Rubio, Cruz and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. But it's the adults who are woefully behind.

Christie's remarks follow similar speeches from Bush and Kasich. Like Christie, they emphasized their own résumés and offered few specifics on what it will take to tackle ISIS. Meanwhile, their allies are getting behind a $2.5 million ad campaign launched by the pro-Kasich super PAC, New Day for America, hitting Trump for his lack of experience. Last month, it even hired a plane to circle Ohio's Columbus Convention Center, where Trump was speaking, pulling a banner that read, "Ohioans can't trust Trump."

So far, no gimmick has boosted the political veterans. The Globe poll has Bush, Kasich and Christie mired in single digits in New Hampshire, the early state that's a must-win for establishment candidates. In Iowa, where retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson was leading but is now slipping, it's Cruz—a senator less than three years—who has risen, not Bush. Even on national security, it's anger, not ability, that seems to be driving the 2016 campaign.