WASHINGTON (AP) — For the first time in decades, the Republican presidential ticket has little substantial foreign policy or military experience, a marked shift for a party that has long sought to project strength on those issues.
That may not hurt Mitt Romney, a successful businessman, and Paul Ryan, a congressional budget expert, in a tightly contested election dominated by sluggish economic growth and high unemployment.
But a series of pressing foreign policy concerns — including the war in Afghanistan, a civil war in Syria and the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran — still could shake up the race before November and are certain to become immediate priorities for whoever wins the White House.
Republicans insists that Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman, brings foreign policy credentials to the Romney-led ticket. Campaign officials point to his experience working on international trade issues in Congress and his knowledge of the defense budget.
"Gov. Romney chose Congressman Ryan first and foremost because he's ready on day one to step in as commander in chief should he need to assume that responsibility," Romney spokesman Brendan Buck said.
But the difference between the foreign policy and national security experience held by the Romney-Ryan ticket and recent Republican tickets is stark.
Dick Cheney served as defense secretary before becoming vice president to President George W. Bush, a former Texas governor who had scant experience in international affairs. Bob Dole, who ran for president in 1996, was a World War II hero, though his running mate, Jack Kemp, was a congressman best known for his conservative economic views. President George H.W. Bush was a World War II veteran, the U.S. envoy to China and CIA director before serving as vice president to Ronald Reagan, who had limited foreign policy skills, and later winning the presidency himself.
Most recently, Republicans nominated Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam War hero who has spent years on the Senate Armed Services Committee. His running mate, Sarah Palin, had no foreign policy experience and was mocked for referencing her home state of Alaska's proximity to Russia as she worked to boost her credentials.
Romney, for his part, is a one-term former Massachusetts governor who spent most of his life in the private sector, experience that forms the basis of his candidacy. He was exposed to international affairs during those private sector years and before that lived in France for two and a half years as a Mormon missionary, but his direct involvement in foreign policy has been limited.
Ryan has spent nearly 14 years in Congress, serving mainly on committees with an economic focus, including the House Budget Committee, which he chairs, and the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. He has traveled to 19 countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq, on taxpayer-funded congressional trips since 2001 and traveled to Israel in 2005 on a trip privately financed by the American Israel Education Foundation. He also founded the Congressional Middle East Economic Partnership Caucus, which focuses on boosting trade ties between the U.S. and Middle Eastern nations.
Neither Romney nor Ryan has served in the military.
Some presidential historians say the last time a Republican ticket was this thin on foreign policy experience was 1964, when Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater and running mate William Miller were defeated by Democrats Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey.
Four years ago, it was Obama facing questions about his foreign policy credentials, which was largely limited to a few years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his high-profile opposition to the Iraq war.
So Obama did what presidential candidates with slim foreign policy records often do. After clinching the Democratic nomination, he took an eight country trip that included stops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then he picked a running mate to fill that void, tapping Joe Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for that role. The younger Bush, Obama's predecessor, took a similar approach by selecting Cheney in 2000.
Romney eschewed that strategy, even after a shaky overseas trip this summer that raised fresh questions about his grasp of international affairs. Instead, he renewed his emphasis on the economy, banking on that issue staying at the forefront of the election through November.
"I think Romney just decided instead of fighting it, just concede it," said Colin Kahl, a former Pentagon official who advises Obama on national security issues.
Romney's economy-focused gamble may pay off, barring an unexpected crisis pushing foreign policy to the forefront.
A Fox News poll conducted earlier this month showed that just 30 percent of registered voters called foreign policy "extremely important" to their vote in November compared to 56 percent who felt that way about the economy. The same poll gave Obama an advantage over Romney, with 51 percent saying they trust the president to do a better job handling foreign policy compared to 28 who trust Romney more.
Obama's foreign policy credentials have been bolstered in large part by the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALs.
Upon taking office, Obama was saddled with two U.S.-led wars; he started drawing down the Iraq conflict and boosted the American military presence in Afghanistan. He also quickly faced the reality that campaign promises aren't always as easy to execute in office when his pledge to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention center ran into road blocks over whether to move terror suspects into U.S. prisons or send them back to their home countries.
Romney has criticized Obama's withdrawal plan in Afghanistan, but offered few details about how he would change it. He also says the president has been weak in his defense of Israel and made it easier for Iran to pursue a nuclear weapon. When Romney visited Israel on his foreign trip, he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and discussed Israel's growing impatience over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Romney advisers say Ryan's positions on those foreign policy issues and others are in line with the presumptive Republican nominee. Ryan voted for the Iraq war and for the 2007 troop surge that is credited with quelling violence there. He has opposed Obama's timeline for drawing down U.S. troops levels in Afghanistan, but has not said when and how he would seek to end that war.
Associated Press Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC.