TIME 2016 Election

The Straight Talk Express Gets a Few More Passengers

The Straight Talk express bus during Senator John McCain's(R-AZ) visit to a polling booth during the "Straight Talk Express" campaign for the Republican nomination in Nashua, New Hampshire on January 8, 2007.
NBC NewsWire via Getty Images The Straight Talk express bus during Senator John McCain's(R-AZ) visit to a polling booth during the "Straight Talk Express" campaign for the Republican nomination in Nashua, New Hampshire on January 8, 2007.

Suddenly, truth-telling is in vogue

It takes a savvy politician to run for president by telling people what they don’t want to hear—or perhaps a crazy one. Yet here was Lindsey Graham, South Carolina’s senior senator, shuffling into the state capitol June 22 to advocate the removal of the Confederate flag. Graham’s nascent presidential campaign depends on winning the Palmetto State — where six in 10 voters oppose the relocation of the rebel emblem.

But it wasn’t the first time Graham, who supports comprehensive immigration reform and climate science, has put conscience ahead of his constituents. And he’s hardly the only candidate risking the repercussions of defying the party base as the race for the White House ramps up.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has stuck by his moderate positions on education and immigration. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will make controversial entitlement reforms a cornerstone of his comeback bid. Ohio Gov. John Kasich infuriated conservative activists by expanding Medicaid in Ohio. And long-shot candidate former New York Gov. George Pataki has made disagreeing with his party’s mainstream a point of pride.

The maverick style has gone mainstream. Fifteen years after John McCain tried to ride the Straight Talk Express to the GOP nomination, the truth-telling persona has become as much a fixture of presidential campaigning as the flag pin. And in the 2016 Republican primary, more candidates than ever before are betting that a base-bucking approach will pay off with voters sick of the quadrennial presidential pander.

“You have to understand,” Kasich explained to TIME in a recent interview, “the Republican Party is my vehicle, and not my master.”

All this is a stark change from the 2012 campaign, when the GOP field was desperate to indulge the activist base that seemed to hold the keys to the White House. The rush to the right often manifested in ways that were embarrassing or ugly. There was the debate where nearly the entire field pledged to veto a 10-to-1 deal of spending cuts for new tax revenue—a pact most sensible conservatives would snap up in a second. There was the collective unwillingness to call out conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh’s ad hominem attack against women’s rights’ activist Sandra Fluke. There was the forum in Florida where the candidates stood idly by as a gay soldier was booed on live television.

Yet four years later, the number of candidates eager to establish their independence exceeds the number who are purely focused on pleasing the base. “Voters are looking for leaders who treat them like adults and tell them the truth,” says Mike DuHaime, Christie’s chief strategist. “They are rejecting politicians who tell everyone what they want to hear and speak only in cautious focus-grouped terms.”

In some ways, the tell-it-like-it-is caucus is responding to Americans’ well-documented dissatisfaction with the nation’s institutions—and especially its elected officials.

“Most of these candidates understand that of the forces shaping the electorate, there is nothing more dominating than the utter collapse of trust between the American people and just about every institution you can think of,” explains Steve Schmidt, McCain’s former top strategist. “What they get is the macro-political climate in the country. They get the sour mood of the American people, the collapse of trust between most American institutions and the American people, and that they want a real leader.”

“Folks hate Washington, D.C.; its policies, its politics, its attitude,” adds New Hampshire-based GOP strategist Dave Carney. “We thirst for someone to treat us as adults, and be straight with us about the problems and challenges we face as a nation.”

But that’s not the only reason why Ted Cruz, whose Oval Office aspirations may hinge on winning the Iowa caucuses, called for an end to the ethanol subsidies that have long fattened local interests. Or why Bush told the Wall Street Journal last December that the next GOP nominee must be willing to “lose the primary to win the general without violating your principles.”

“Folks will tell you in politics, ‘don’t talk about that subject,’” Christie said in New Hampshire this month, in a reference to raising the retirement age. “They call it the third rail of American politics. They say, ‘don’t touch it.’ So we’re not going to touch it. We’re going to hug it.”

The maverick shtick is popular because it can be good politics. Each of these campaigns has mapped their paths to the White House through New Hampshire, where style has always been as prized as substance. They know that truth-telling can be a recipe for media attention, and that presenting one’s self as an agent of change can help establish a niche in a crowded field.

Their numbers are also growing as a side effect of new rules put in place after the 2012 race to shorten the primary calendar and limit the number of televised debates. The guidelines, imposed by the Republican National Committee to limit the damage inflicted on the eventual nominee, have had the unexpected effect of nationalizing the race. With more states voting early on, contests in places like Iowa and South Carolina become less vital to a candidate’s chances. That saps the power of hardcore activists and hands more influence to moderate voters in bigger, more diverse states. And with national polling being the standard to get on stage at the all-important televised debates, candidates have to define themselves more. “Loud doesn’t mean a lot,” Graham says.

The would-be mavericks are also responding to a well-documented hunger for a virtuous statesman, as embodied by the cinematic archetypes of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith or Aaron Sorkin’s Jed Barlet. Or even the real-life McCain, whose bull-shooting sessions with the press on the back of his bus are the stuff of political legend.

Still, it’s a safe bet that political calculations will ultimately trump conscience. Graham’s good friend McCain pandered on the Confederate flag in his 2000 campaign and tapped Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008 when he needed to galvanize the base. And candidates of all stripes can cast the same old red-meat as telling uncomfortable truths that somehow only discomfort the other party.

“It remains to be seen,” Schmidt says, “whether we’re going to have truth-telling candidates rather than candidates using ‘truth-telling’ as a prop.”

TIME 2016 Election

What 2016 Republicans Would Do Next on Obamacare

For Republican presidential candidates, a possible Supreme Court decision overturning some Obamacare subsidies is a tricky subject.

No one in the GOP field wants to be seen as supportive of the Affordable Care Act, which was viewed unfavorably by 69 percent of Republicans in a June poll. But if the court rules against the Obama Administration, subsidies that make insurance affordable for 6.4 million Americans would be in jeopardy.

Four candidates are governors of states that would be directly affected by a court ruling because they do not have their own insurance marketplace: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Another four are sitting U.S. senators who could be forced to vote on any legislative fixes: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. (Of those, only Paul’s state would not be directly affected, as Kentucky runs its own marketplace, called Kynect.)

The candidates who are not in office currently—former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and businessman Donald Trump—have more flexibility to respond.

Here’s what the candidates have said should happen if the court strikes down subsidies in 34 states that don’t run their own marketplaces, in order of how major their plan would be:

Mike Huckabee: Wait and see

He has not yet taken a position.

Rick Santorum: Wait and see

He has not yet taken a position.

John Kasich: Ohio should fix it

“I’ve got good people working on this. We’ve chatted about this,” he told NewsMax. “If the court makes a decision that these exchanges get shut down, then we’re gonna have to figure something out in Ohio.”

Scott Walker: Congress should fix it

“This is a problem created by this president and the previous Congress,” he told Bloomberg News. “It’s something that requires a solution at the federal level. States didn’t create this problem, the federal government did. And they should fix it.”

Chris Christie: Congress should fix it

“If Congress messed up the statute, the Congress and the President created the statute; they should fix it,” he said during a trip to New Hampshire. “If they’re saying it’s not what they intended, then go back and fix it.”

Carly Fiorina: Congress should fix it

“I know that we certainly cannot leave people hanging and I have confidence that they are working on a plan in Congress now,” she told reporters. “I’m not sure if it is the plan that I would put forward, but I’m confident that they’re working on a plan.”

Marco Rubio: Pass a short-term fix, then replace the law

“Credible conservative plans have already emerged from Senator Ben Sasse, Congressman Paul Ryan and others,” he wrote on Fox News. “The goal is to provide an off-ramp for our people to escape this law without losing their insurance.”

Lindsey Graham: Pass a short-term fix, then replace the law

“I don’t think we should terminate (the subsidies) until we have a plan,” he told Politico.

Rick Perry: Pass a short-term fix, then replace the law

“You don’t turn around a huge ship just overnight. It takes a transition period,” he told RealClearPolitics. “I think most Americans, whether they’re strict conservatives economically, would find that to be out of the realm of appropriate.”

Ted Cruz: Let states opt out of Obamacare

“In a perfect world, we would take that opportunity to repeal Obamacare. At a minimum, we should allow states to opt out,” he told Politico. He later said he would push for a six-month transition to a full-blown repeal.

Rand Paul: Pass a conservative replacement now

“I would like to legalize inexpensive insurance policies, give more choice, let people choose their doctor, expand health savings accounts, help people save for their insurance,” he told Politico.

Jeb Bush: Pass a conservative replacement now

“Give broad discretion to states to create exchanges that would look more like a Republican vision of how you expand access to health care insurance,” he told the Des Moines Register. “The president’s likely to veto that. You don’t know until you get it there, though.”

Bobby Jindal: Do nothing

“Congress might be tempted to pass language extending the subsidies to the federally-run exchange, allowing Obamacare to comply with the court ruling,” he wrote in National Review. “That’s a ‘solution’ in search of a problem.”

TIME mike huckabee

Huckabee Aims for Seniors with Social Security Pitch in Florida

GOP presidential contender Mike Huckabee delivers a defense of Social Security benefits during Florida Gov. Rick Scott's Economic Growth Summit on Tuesday, June 2, 2015, at the Yacht & Beach Club Convention Center at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Orlando Sentinel via Getty Images GOP presidential contender Mike Huckabee delivers a defense of Social Security benefits during Florida Gov. Rick Scott's Economic Growth Summit on Tuesday, June 2, 2015, at the Yacht & Beach Club Convention Center at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee delivered a strong defense of government safety net programs for seniors at a candidate forum in Florida Tuesday, aiming for retired voters in a state rich with them.

While former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have called for raising the retirement age and means-testing Social Security benefits, Huckabee called those proposals “absolutely ridiculous.”

“Unlike some in Washington who want to cut benefits for seniors, I will protect Social Security and Medicare. Period,” the former Fox News host said at the forum organized by sitting Florida Gov. Rick Scott. “These programs are not entitlements they are earned benefits. The government took that money from you involuntarily when you started working – with the promise that you’d get that money back when you retire. For the government to even think about breaking that promise is absolutely ridiculous.”

In April, Christie proposed a plan that would gradually raise the retirement age to 67 for Medicare and 69 for Social Security, while phasing out payments for those with retirement incomes over $200,000. In an interview with CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday, Bush called for a raising the retirement age and said he was open to means-testing.

“We need to look over the horizon and begin to phase in, over an extended period of time, going from 65 to 68 or 70,” Bush said. “And that, by itself, will help sustain the retirement system for anybody under the age of 40.”

In his speech, Huckabee also called for the importation of cheap pharmaceuticals from overseas in an effort to bring down costs.

“For too long, Floridians have been paying far too much for prescription drugs,” Huckabee said. “Americans should have the freedom to purchase safe drugs from Canada. In fact, doing so would save taxpayers $19 billion over 10 years. Re-importation also would create competition here in the United States and lower the cost of drugs for all Americans. It just makes sense. It’s wrong that people in foreign countries free-ride off of Americans who pay so much for the same drugs, especially seniors.”

TIME Chris Christie

Chris Christie to Pull New Jersey Out of Common Core

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Julio Cortez—AP New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

The move could help Christie in his quest for the Republican presidential nomination

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will announce Thursday he is pulling his state out of the Common Core education standards, bowing to pressure from teachers and parents, as well as conservative fears about government overreach.

Christie, who is expected to declare his candidacy for President in the coming months, began a review of the standards a year ago, just as the issue began bubbling up in town-hall meetings in New Jersey and on the campaign trail.

Developed as a bipartisan proposal by state governors and states’ chiefs of schools six years ago, Common Core has become increasingly toxic politically among conservatives. Several Republican governors who initially supported the Common Core have backed out in recent years, and others have worked hard to distance themselves from it.

Christie’s announcement comes the same day that a lawsuit regarding Common Core, initiated by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who once supported the standards, was heard in a Baton Rouge court. Jindal is suing the U.S. Department of Education for allegedly “coercing” states into adopting Common Core by tying $4.35 billion in federal funding from Race to the Top, and waivers from No Child Left Behind, to the adoption of high standards.

The Obama Administration has moved to dismiss the case on the grounds that states were never required to adopt Common Core in particular, but instead to adopt any “rigorous standards” of their choosing. Forty-six states signed onto Common Core after it was finalized in 2010.

“It’s now been five years since Common Core was adopted. And the truth is that it’s simply not working,” Christie will say in a speech at Burlington County College in New Jersey on Thursday afternoon. “It has brought only confusion and frustration to our parents. And has brought distance between our teachers and the communities where they work.”

The move sets up a contrast between himself and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who remains a supporter of the standards. While Bush has distanced himself rhetorically from the policy, choosing not to use the words Common and Core, his education foundation helped fund and advocated for their implementation nationwide. Ohio Governor John Kasich, a likely GOP contender, has also stood up in defense of Common Core, condemning those in his party who have turned their back on them.

“Sometimes things get to be political and they get to be runaway Internet issues,” Kasich said in New Hampshire in March. “We don’t want the federal government driving K-12 education, and in my state — the state of Ohio — that is simply not the case.”

The reversal comes as Christie’s political fortunes are at a crossroads. His poll numbers have continued to wane from the lingering effects of the politically motivated closure of approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge and a weak fiscal picture in the Garden State. But Christie is pegging his hopes for success on New Hampshire, the libertarian-minded state where the Common Core standards are especially divisive.

Christie is tasking David Hespe, the commissioner of the state’s department of education, to lead a panel that will develop a new set of standards for the state.

“I have heard far too many people — teachers and parents from across the state — that the Common Core standards were not developed by New Jersey educators and parents,” Christie will say according to prepared remarks from his office. “As a result, the buy-in from both communities has not been what we need for maximum achievements. I agree. It is time to have standards that are even higher and come directly from our communities. I agree. It is time to have standards that are even higher and come directly from our communities.”

Common Core has also been a major bone of contention in Democratic states, where opposition to the standards is linked to objections to an uptick in standardized testing. Last year, Chicago schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett tempted federal sanctions by announcing that she did not intend to force her students to take the tests associated with Common Core. Tens of thousands of New York State students also opted out of the Common Core testing regime.

TIME 2016 Election

Why New Hampshire Will Be the First Real Test for Republicans

Reporters use their mobile phones to record potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush as he answers questions after a business roundtable in Portsmouth, N.H. on May 20, 2015.
Brian Snyder—Reuters Reporters use their mobile phones to record potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush as he answers questions after a business roundtable in Portsmouth, N.H. on May 20, 2015.

Bob Beckett takes his duty to vet presidential candidates in the nation’s first primary so seriously that it’s listed as his profession on his business card: “Registered New Hampshire Voter.”

He might want to have a few more printed up next year. The Granite State primary is poised to play an even bigger role than usual in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, possibly overshadowing the Iowa caucuses one week earlier.

In part, that’s because Iowa voters have lurched to the right, and the unusually large Republican field has more than a few candidates laying the groundwork to win big there, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Each is climbing over his rivals trying to claim the most conservative corner.

That’s led to candidates who are seen as more moderate, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former New York Gov. George Pataki to pin their hopes on New Hampshire, while the would-be Iowa winners aim for a repeat win. And the states that follow soon after already have home-state figures starting with an advantage: South Carolina is Sen. Lindsey Graham’s home turf, while Florida is a base for both Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio.

With a broader slate of candidates competing in a more wide-open primary, New Hampshire could play a more crucial role winnowing the field. And for now, at least, it’s anyone’s game. Beckett, a 60-year-old sales manager for a technology company, said New Hampshire residents are still shopping around.

“We’re still kicking the tires,” he said, after a recent event in Bedford, N.H. “We vet these guys and figure out who is serious and who is not.”

From a purely logistical point of view, New Hampshire is an easier state to campaign in. Most of the population lives in the southern part of the state, requiring far less driving than Iowa’s expansive stretches between cities. And for the candidates with day jobs in Washington, it’s a quick flight north from the capital.

The state’s politics also make it more of a jump ball for presidential candidates.

Voters who do not identify with either major political party are the largest bloc in the state, and they can cast ballots in either party’s primary. That gives non-affiliated voters a great say in the winner and offers a preview of a candidate’s appeal with ever-crucial swing votes. To win in Iowa, many candidates have taken deeply conservative positions that come back to haunt them as nominees.

“Independents get to vote in our primary. It’s a better test of your general election strength,” said Steve Duprey, a former state GOP chairman who helped guide Sen. John McCain to his 2000 and 2008 victories in the state’s vaunted primary. “We have a broader range of views in the Republican Party than our cousins in Iowa.”

The Hawkeye State’s GOP has been dragged rightward in recent years. A strain of anti-immigration rhetoric has taken hold there, imperiling candidates who have backed proposals to address the more than 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. That spells nothing but a headache for Bush, along with two expected rivals who were the architects of the failed, bipartisan attempt to fix the immigration system: Graham and Rubio.

And Iowa’s deeply religious conservatives demand an orthodoxy that rewards candidates such as former Sen. Rick Santorum, 2012’s caucus winner, or Huckabee, who prevailed in 2008. New Hampshire, by contrast, is consistently among the most secular in the country in Gallup polling.

Instead, New Hampshire’s unofficial religion is politics.

“People here in New Hampshire know that it’s their civic duty. It’s what we do,” said Renee Plummer, a marketing executive who has organized luncheons for White House hopefuls to meet with business leaders. “We vet these people. We ask them the questions again and again, and hopefully we do it well for the country.”

History backs up that claim. Only three times since 1952 has the GOP nominee not carried New Hampshire. Iowa, by contrast, is a relatively new recent beachhead for the GOP. And since 1980, the state has four times backed candidates who failed to win the nomination.

It has become a cliché, for sure, but there is something to the refrain that Iowa picks corn while New Hampshire picks presidents.

It’s why Beckett and his neighbors crowded into a house near Manchester this week to hear Bush answer their questions about climate change, foreign policy and education.

“It’s just another day in New Hampshire,” host Rich Ashooh quipped to his guests who packed his living room to hear Bush.

Given the importance of New Hampshire, voters in the state should expect frequent visits from these likely candidates.

“I’m going to engage fully in New Hampshire,” Bush promised a talk-radio interviewer on Thursday as he drove between events.

While nodding to Iowa, it was clear Bush was betting big on New Hampshire: “These early states matter.”

TIME Chris Christie

Chris Christie to Call For Larger Military, Defend Intelligence Collection

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Olivier Douliery—Getty Images New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

He'll call for more warships and military planes in a speech Monday

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will call for an expanded military and defend American intelligence programs Monday in a speech laying out his foreign policy vision in New Hampshire.

The all-but-certain Republican presidential candidate is set to criticize the emerging Iran nuclear agreement as well as President Obama’s handling of the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), according to prepared remarks released by his political action committee.

“With Iran, the President’s eagerness for a deal on their nuclear program has him ready to accept a bad deal,” Christie will say.

Christie will issue a full-throated defense of American spying efforts, seeking to draw contrast with more dovish members of his own party, as well as many Democrats, who have unified against the National Security Agency since the Edward Snowden revelations in 2013.

“They want you to think that there’s a government spook listening in every time you pick up the phone or Skype with your grandkids,” Christie will say. “They want you to think of our intelligence community as the bad guys, straight out of the Bourne Identity or a Hollywood thriller. And they want you to think that if we weakened our capabilities, the rest of the world would love us more.”

“Let me be clear: all these fears are baloney,” Christie will add. “When it comes to fighting terrorism, our government is not the enemy. And we shouldn’t listen to people like Edward Snowden, a criminal who hurt our country and now enjoys the hospitality of President Putin—while sending us messages about the dangers of authoritarian government.”

Christie will also propose an expansion of federal defense spending, including a repeal of the mandatory budgetary caps known as sequestration.

“The Army and Marines should not be reduced below their pre-9/11 strength, and our active duty forces should be at 500,000 Army soldiers and 185,000 Marines,” he will say, drumming the call of the nation’s defense hawks. “Our Navy should have more ships,” adding the Navy needs at least 350 vessels. The Air Force, Christie will say, should have 2,000 combat aircraft and a total strength of 6,000 aircraft.

Christie’s call for an expanded military mirrors the plans of other Republicans, even the more dovish Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who earlier this year called for an expansion of the military budget.

Read more: Rand Paul Proposes Boosting Defense Spending

Christie has seen his path to the presidency narrow amid a troubled fiscal situation in his state and the continued fallout of the politically motivated closures of approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge by former aides in 2013. Monday’s remarks are the third in a series of addresses designed to restart his presidential efforts, as he prepares to make his candidacy official in the coming months.

Casting himself as a decisive leader in contrast to Obama, whom he says has not defined a strategy for America in the world, Christie will argue that the current administration is alienating American allies. One piece of evidence he’ll cite: Last week, Obama was set to host Gulf leaders, but several, including Saudi King Salman, pulled out in an apparent snub to the White House.

“The price of inaction is steadily rising,” he will say. “Just last week we saw the embarrassment of almost all the Gulf leaders, including the Saudi king, pulling out of President Obama’s summit at Camp David. Our allies want policies, not photo ops, and we’re not listening to them.”

Christie will call for the linkage between the sanctions on Iran stemming from its nuclear program to that country’s efforts to destabilize the Middle East, including its support for Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen. Such suggestions have been rejected by the Obama Administration as an effort to undermine the nuclear deal.

TIME Foreign Policy

The Republicans’ Iraq Trap

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during an event at the Metropolitan University in San Juan, Puerto Rico on April 28, 2015.
Ricardo Arduengo—AP Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks during an event at the Metropolitan University in San Juan, Puerto Rico on April 28, 2015.

Jeb Bush still doesn’t know how to talk about Iraq.

The all-but-certain Republican presidential candidate’s strategy for handling his trickiest political inheritance has swung wildly in recent days, earning criticism from both sides of the aisle.

On Saturday the former Florida governor appeared to say he would have supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq even if he knew weapons of mass destruction weren’t present. By Tuesday, Bush was backpedaling, claiming he “misheard” the question. And by Wednesday he was punting, arguing against answering “hypothetical” questions about a war that claimed 4,491 U.S. lives.

No candidate this year is haunted by that conflict like Bush, who must weigh political and familial considerations. But he’s not alone in his struggles. In a campaign dominated so far by foreign policy themes, GOP presidential hopefuls are increasingly torn between the need to project toughness and the need to acknowledge what many voters see as the defining error of the last Republican commander-in-chief.

It’s a balancing act driven by the demands of the electorate. Years of surveys show the American public’s rejection of a war launched on faulty intelligence: a 2014 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, for example, found 71% of voters thought the war “wasn’t worth it,” compared to just 22% who thought it was. At the same time, the tumult rippling across the Middle East—from the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) to the unrest in war-torn nations like Libya, Syria and Yemen—has rejuvenated the nation’s hawkish impulses. A succession of polls this year suggest most Americans support sending ground troops to fight ISIS.

As a result, GOP candidates have embraced anew a muscular foreign policy that had atrophied for much of the Obama presidency. Promises to calm the chaos of the Middle East have dominated early candidate cattle calls, while tough talk on Iran has taken the place of Obamacare as a stump speech fixture. Even Sen. Rand Paul, who advocates a restrained foreign policy as part of the party’s more isolationist wing, introduced an amendment to significantly boost the defense budget. After announcing his presidential bid in April, the Kentuckian posed in front of a retired aircraft carrier in the port of Charleston to repeat his call. On a recent trip to South Carolina, Sen. Marco Rubio invoked Liam Neeson’s avenging promise from the movie Taken: “We will look for you, we will find you, and we will kill you.”

The bellicosity is one element of a broader strategy that includes also blaming President Obama for the mess in the Middle East and tethering Bush to his older brother. “If we knew then what we know now and I were the president of the United States, I wouldn’t have gone to war,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told CNN. Paul told the Associated Press that Bush’s comments represent “a real problem if he can’t articulate what he would have done differently.”

“Knowing what we know now, of course we wouldn’t go into Iraq,” Sen. Ted Cruz told The Hill.

Rubio went even further in an interview Wednesday at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Not only would I have not been in favor of it, President Bush would not have been in favor of it. He said so,” he said.

Turning Iraq into a centerpiece of the campaign is fraught with risk for Republicans, who have wrestled with the demons of a misbegotten war for a decade now. In 2004, the GOP made support for the conflict into a proxy for patriotism and rode the decision to victory in the presidential election. But by 2006, Democrats regained control of Congress amid the persistent casualties and growing sectarian violence sweeping Iraq.

Two years later, Obama’s early opposition to the war helped vault him past Hillary Clinton in their epic primary contest. He then used Sen. John McCain’s outspokenness for the war against him, mocking McCain’s suggestion that there might be an American presence in Iraq for 100 years. In 2012 Obama won re-election while highlighting his commitment to end the war.

But as the stability of Iraq crumbled in the wake of Obama’s troop withdrawal, Republicans sensed they could regain the upper hand. GOP candidates have criticized Obama for not leaving a larger security force in place to support the Iraqi government. Party strategists believe the path to the presidency hinges in part on an ability to disavow George W. Bush’s mistakes while blaming Obama for making the mess much worse.

Recognizing it won’t be easy, some of the party’s presidential contenders are treading lightly. In a speech laying out his foreign policy vision Wednesday, Rubio only briefly alluded to Iraq, implying that Obama’s troop drawdown was too swift and invoking “Afghans worried that America will leave them like we left Iraq.”

The delicate balancing act is sharply different from the strategy employed by the likely Democratic nominee. After years of standing by her vote to authorize the war, Clinton wrote in her 2014 memoir that she “got it wrong. Plain and simple.”

It was a reflection of how the politics of the issue had shifted—and may be shifting still.

TIME 2016 Election

Chris Christie Racked Up $300k of Food and Alcohol on Expense Account

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Olivier Douliery—Getty Images New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

Over his five years as governor

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spent $300,000 of a government state allowance over five years in office to buy food, alcoholic drinks and desserts, according to a new analysis of state records.

In addition to his $175,000 salary, Christie receives $95,000 a year for purposes vaguely defined in the state budget for official purposes like state receptions, operating an official residence, or other expenses.

And numbers published by local website New Jersey Watchdog show Christie, a Republican presidential hopeful, took full advantage of the stipend over his five years as governor. He spent $76,373 during 53 shopping runs at Wegmans Food Markets, and $11,971 in purchases at ShopRite supermarkets during 51 visits, in addition to another $6,536 in seven visits to ShopRite’s liquor stores. The site is published by the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.

All the food purchases were for official purposes, an aide in Christie’s office said, including receptions and general upkeep at the governor’s mansion.

During the 2010 and 2011 NFL football seasons, Christie also spent a total of $82,594 at the MetLife Stadium, where the New York’s Giants and Jets play their home games. The New Jersey Republican State Committee later reimbursed the money Christie spent at MetLife to the state.

Gov. Christie’s office said the money was used for official political functions to host dignitaries and legislators.

“Whenever the Governor hosts an event in his official capacity, the discretionary account is available to pay for those costs associated with official reception and hosting and related incidental expenses,” said Christie’s press secretary Kevin Roberts in a statement.

“Nonetheless in early 2012, the Governor made the decision that costs associated with hosting at the sporting venues were better paid with non-state funds, and those expenses incurred during 2010 and 2011 were reimbursed by the NJGOP.”

Christie every year returns leftover funds from the $95,000 allowance to the state. The amount Christie returned annually to the state increased from $2,716 in 2010 to $30,377 last year.

Read next: Watch SNL Lampoon GOP Presidential Candidates

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Chris Christie

Christie’s Problem: Bridgegate May Never Go Away

Chris Christie Addresses VA Consumer Electronics Association
Olivier Douliery—Getty Images New Jersey Governor Chris Christie addresses VA Consumer Electronics Association during a Leadership Series discussion at the Ritz-Carlton in McLean, Va, on May 1, 2015.

A federal prosecutor refused to say whether the New Jersey governor was involved, but his real problem is voters

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spent Friday morning at a roundtable with technology executives in a suburban Washington Ritz-Carlton in the latest stop on his pre-presidential campaign tour. But 200 miles away in Virginia, those aspirations were being dealt their latest blow, as a former ally turned state’s evidence, implicating two top aides in a conspiracy to close approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge.

The long-stewing scandal began in 2013, when the bridge lanes were closed, but it did not end at Friday’s press conference with U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman. Instead, the federal prosecutor refused to address more than a dozen questions about Christie’s knowledge of or involvement in the lane-closing scheme and said he would never declare Christie cleared of wrongdoing.

Even more problematic, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, one of the two aides indicted, suggested that others in Christie’s office knew of the scheme. “For the indictment to suggest that I was the only person in the governor’s office who knew about the bridge issue is ludicrous,” she said in a press conference Friday afternoon. And Alan Zegas, the attorney for admitted Bridgegate conspirator David Wildstein, repeated the claim that “evidence exists” to prove that Christie was aware of the bridge closures as they occurred.

“Based on the information that is currently available to us, we’re not going to charge anybody else in this scheme,” Fishman told reporters, emphasizing ‘this.’ At least one other investigation has been launched stemming from the bridge investigation. “I am not going to comment whether anybody is going to be further investigated in this or any other matter,” he added. “Ever.”

Christie and his aides maintain that Friday’s proceedings changed nothing about his long-held position that he knew nothing of the plot.

“Today’s charges make clear that what I’ve said from day one is true, I had no knowledge or involvement in the planning or execution of this act,” Christie said in a statement. “The moment I first learned of this unacceptable behavior I took action, firing staff believed to be accountable, calling for an outside investigation and agreeing to fully cooperate with all appropriate investigations, which I have done. Now 15 months later it is time to let the justice system do its job.”

But questions remain about Christie’s handling of the situation — and it may not be possible to answer them to the satisfaction of voters. How could Christie, whose national political action committee is called “Leadership Matters for America,” be blind to the actions of some of his closest aides? And how, when faced with complaints and questions from constituents, elected leaders, and the media, did he so easily shrug them off without investigating the situation?

Christie has long denied any knowledge of the lane closures at the time, but he is now faced with the impossible task of proving a negative. The best his team has been able to muster is that there is no evidence to prove his knowledge.

Christie and Wildstein met briefly on Sept. 11, 2013 — the third day the scheme was in operation — at a memorial event for the 2001 attacks. According to an investigation conducted by the lawfirm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher on behalf of Christie’s office, former Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak recalled a conversation with Wildstein in which he said he spoke to the governor about the lane closures at that time. But no corroborating evidence has surfaced to that effect, and Christie has said he has no recollection of the exchange.

Wildstein, a senior Port Authority of New York and New Jersey employee, admitted to being a part of the conspiracy to close the lanes on the first day of school, allegedly in retaliation for Democratic Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich’s refusal to endorse Christie’s re-election. A nine-count indictment against Kelly, Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority, who are alleged to have helped carry out the payback scheme, was unsealed after the plea.

After a state legislative investigation unearthed damning text messages and emails between Wildstein and Kelly, including the infamous “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Christie fired Kelly.

“David Wildstein’s guilty plea and role in the traffic problems in Fort Lee have everything to do with Chris Christie despite his statements to the contrary,” said Democratic National Committee spokesperson Kaylie Hanson. “We continue to learn how closely connected the two men were before, during and after the George Washington Bridge lane closures, yet there are still so many questions that Chris Christie has left unanswered.”

The bridge scandal has taken an extraordinary toll on Christie’s presidential plans. In 2011, Republican operatives and financiers begged him to challenge Mitt Romney, promising he’d have the backing of their pocketbooks and donor networks. Now, many of the same have abandoned his likely candidacy for the likes of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. His poll numbers have collapsed at home, and nationally he is viewed more negatively than positively.

Yet by all accounts, Christie is proceeding with his delayed presidential plans. He’s continuing on an aggressive fundraising blitz for his political action committee, and next week will hold his third town hall in New Hampshire, the state that is at the center of his primary plan.

On his visit to the state last month, Christie earned a ribbing from New Hampshire voters about the bridge, proving it may never stop dogging him on the trail.

TIME Bizarre

Kirstie Alley Responds to ‘Christie Ally’ Bridge Scandal Confusion

The actress joked that she takes full responsibility

Friday in “No, The Nation’s Schools Are Doing Fine, Why Do You Ask?,” actress Kirstie Alley was trending on Twitter because people were misreading news headlines referring to a “Christie ally,” as in, an ally of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

And while the headline “Christie Ally Expected to Plead Guilty in George Washington Bridge Lane-Closing Case” could conceivably be misinterpreted by people speed-reading through their various news feeds, that’s no reason to blame Alley.

The actress herself seems to be taking her newfound Twitter popularity in stride – and might not be as blameless as you might think.

“I take full responsibility!” the actress tells PEOPLE. “You see, I bought a new Aston Martin and wanted the whole freeway to myself to test drive and … oops.”

This article originally appeared on People.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com