The Republican candidate must address at least four vital areas. The most important is the struggle that will define this century's arc: radical Islamic terrorism. He should make the case that victory must be America's national goal, not merely seeking to "delegitimize the use of terrorism and to isolate those who carry it out," as Obama's May 2010 National Security Strategy put it. As in the Cold War, victory will require sustained U.S. involvement and a willingness to deploy all tools of influence -- from diplomacy to economic ties, from intelligence efforts to military action.
Second, the Republican candidate must condemn the president's precipitous drawdown in Afghanistan and his deep, dangerous defense-budget cuts. Both are viewed skeptically by the military: The former emboldens America's adversaries and discourages its allies; the latter is of deep concern to veterans and other Americans who doubt Obama's commitment to the military.
Third, the Republican candidate should focus on the dangers of rogue states, particularly Iran and North Korea. The upcoming three-year anniversary of the stolen June 2009 Iranian presidential election is a particularly opportune moment for the Republican nominee to meet with Iranian exiles and offer a major speech drawing attention to Obama's weakness and naiveté in dealing with this belligerent power.
In part because of how he has mishandled the Iranian threat, Obama has lost much political and financial support in the American Jewish community. His approach to Israel must be presented as similarly weak and untrustworthy. The Republican candidate must make clear the existential threat to Israel from a nuclear-armed Iran -- not only because it will lead to a better policy, but also because it will reduce the president's support among this key voting bloc in the critical battleground states of Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
The fourth line of attack must be about America's fragile economy and how to restore it. Many voters think Obama's stewardship of the economy has been inconsistent and even counterproductive. This makes it imperative for the Republican candidate to make the case for promoting trade and greater international economic engagement. Obama's failure to match other countries in aggressively opening markets for exports and jobs should be tied to his responsibility for high domestic unemployment and an anemic recovery.
Undoubtedly, Obama will attempt to preempt criticism of his foreign policy by repeating endlessly that Osama bin Laden was killed on his watch. By campaign's end, some voters will wonder whether the president personally delivered the kill shot. The best response is to praise the president. In doing so, however, Obama's opponent should be sure to praise all the drama's actors, especially the Navy SEALs whose courageous assault killed the terrorist leader and the tireless CIA analysts whose hunches convinced then-Director Michael Hayden in 2007 to unleash a massive effort that eventually led to the compound in Abbottabad. In the end, voters know that Obama did not kill bin Laden -- SEALs did.
Absent a major international crisis, this election will be largely about jobs, spending, health care, and energy. Voters do, however, want a president who leads on the world stage and a commander in chief who projects strength, not weakness.
A November 2011 survey conducted by Resurgent Republic showed that 50 percent of voters (as well as 54 percent of self-identified independents) think America's standing in the world is worse under Obama, while only 21 percent believe it is better. This represents a sharp drop from April 2010, when 50 percent of voters (and 49 percent of independents) believed Obama had improved America's standing.
That's because Obama has failed to become a strong international leader, and the Republican nominee must reinforce this message -- one most Americans already believe. Foreign policy is a weakness for this president, not a strength.