One presidential candidate likened the Russian president to a member of the mafia. And the other accused President Obama and the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, of relying on Iran to lead the fight against radical extremists.
Charleston, South Carolina was the backdrop for dueling Republican foreign policy speeches Friday, both of which spent more time dismantling President Obama's foreign policy - and Clinton's - than on drawing distictions within the GOP field. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Florida Senator Marco Rubio gave their respective policy visions just miles apart in the Palmetto state.
For Walker, the address at The Citadel - a conservative military college - was his second policy speech on a topic perceived by many to be a weak spot. He also chose this speech to try a teleprompter for the first time, and it showed, as he stumbled over several lines throughout the speech, which was more blueprint than detailed plan.
Walker focused on ISIS and his approach to the growing threat. "As President, I will send the following message: the retreat is over. American leadership is back and, together with our allies, we will not surrender another inch of ground to terrorists or any other power that threatens our safety."
He linked ISIS to Iran and derided Clinton and the president. "President Obama and Hillary Clinton seem to believe they can sit on the sidelines, hoping Iran will defeat ISIS for them."
Speaking to a room full of cadets who refrained from applause throughout the speech, Walker posed a familiar question about Hillary Clinton's time as secretary of state.
"Are we safer now than we were seven years ago? Anyone who believes the answer to that question is yes should vote for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton."
Walker also tied the threat of radical Islamic terrorists in the U.S. to immigration, suggesting that securing our border was a priority "at any cost" because, "Islamic extremists and other terrorists are most likely using the same trails into our homeland as the drug cartels, weapons smugglers and human traffickers."
He touched on China in his speech but did not call upon the president to cancel the upcoming Chinese state visit, as he did in an op-ed published Friday and in remarks earlier this week. He explained his position to CBS News, saying, "You don't give them rewards."
Rubio's speech at the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, just a few miles from Walker's, was entirely about China. Like Walker, Rubio lambasted China's economy, saying "the negative effects of China's economic meddling are severe." And added "China is doing everything it can to make the 21st century a Chinese Century."
Unlike Walker, Rubio said that he would not cancel the upcoming state dinner with China, but would instead downgrade it to a working dinner.
Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called China's human rights record "a disgrace" and criticized President Obama who, he claimed, "has only appeased their oppressive leaders, staying silent in the face of their human rights abuses."
Rubio detailed in his speech how his administration would deal with China. The first thing he said he'd do as president is bolster the U.S. military by ending defense sequestration.
"Our Navy is now smaller than at any time since before World War I, our Army is headed for pre-World War II levels, and our Air Force has the smallest and oldest combat force in its history. And make no mistake, numbers matter," Rubio said. (The claim about the size of the U.S. military is one often made by Republicans. Technically, this may be true, but a military analyst cited by Politifact said the statement is misleading because advanced technologies have changed the way battles are fought.)
Rubio's tough talk on China did have limits - he didn't mention currency manipulation, which has been blamed for turmoil in the world's markets this week. Rubio did, however, criticize the Chinese for devaluing their currency in a Wall Street Journal op-ed posted Thursday, but he wrote that aggressive retaliation isn't the answer because it "would hurt the U.S. as much as China." Rather, he supports what he called in his op-ed, "firmer insistence on free markets and free trade." Like most Republicans, he sees the ratification of key trade agreements, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as the means to accomplish this end.
In his speech, Rubio declared, "We will not build exclusionary trading blocs, but nor will we allow China to reap the full benefits of American-led commerce unless it fundamentally changes its attitudes and its policies."
During a question and answer session after his speech, Rubio also talked about Russian President Vladimir Putin. "Russia is governed today by a gangster." Rubio said. "He's basically an organized crime figure," There's no other way to describe Vladimir Putin. This is a person who kills people. If you're a political adversary to Vladimir Putin, you wind up with plutonium in your drink or shot in the street."