Washington (CNN)Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's comments that he doesn't think President Barack Obama "loves America" have put potential Republican presidential contenders in a bind, caught between a desire to criticize the President and the need to respect the office of the presidency.
Rudy Giuliani's Obama critique puts 2016ers in a bind
By Friday, a trio of Republicans had distanced themselves from the personal knock on Obama while maintaining Giuliani's intended critique — which they suggested was aimed at the president's foreign policy — was valid. But one leading GOP senator, Kentuckian Rand Paul, went farther, overtly criticizing Giuliani and calling it a "mistake to question peoples' motives."
Paul's office had initially declined to comment on the controversy. But in an interview with CNN affiliate WAVE in Louisville, Paul was asked about the former New York Mayor's statements.
"I think it's a mistake to question people's motives," he replied. "It's one thing to disagree on policy," Paul added, noting that he and Kentucky Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth "don't always agree," but when they do "we acknowledge our agreement."
"But I don't question his motives. And I try not to question the president's motives as being a good American or a bad American," Paul added.
His critique of Giuliani comes as little surprise, as the two have longstanding bad blood between them, dating back to the former New York mayor's rivalry with Rand's father, former Rep. Ron Paul, during the 2008 GOP presidential primary.
But Paul went on to make the case that while he's been critical of Obama's policies, he's never questioned his intentions.
"I've challenged his policies. I've disagreed with him completely on the war in Libya. I blame him and Hillary [Clinton] for something that made us less safe because of the war in Libya. But I don't question whether or not he was well-intentioned," he said.
Other Republicans struck a similar tone on the comments, which Giuliani made at a private dinner with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and a handful of reporters and others. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the party's biggest hawks and an ardent critic of Obama's foreign policy, said while he couldn't examine someone's "soul," he believes Obama's patriotism is sound.
"I am not Dr. Phil. I don't know how to look into somebody's eyes and find out what their soul's up to," he said, but added that he doesn't "question [the president's] patriotism or love for our country."
That doesn't mean, however, that he approves of what Obama's done in office.
"His policies are putting our country at risk. His primary job is to defend America, and he's failing miserably," Graham said.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on Thursday told the Associated Press that while he has "no doubt" Obama loves America, "I just think his policies are bad for our nation." His fellow Floridian, former Gov. Jeb Bush, echoed that sentiment in a Friday statement from spokeswoman Kristy Campbell.
"Governor Bush doesn't question President Obama's motives. He does question President Obama's disastrous policies," she said.
But Rubio perhaps best summarized the sentiments of his party when he lambasted the question itself during a Friday interview with Florida affiliate WPBF.
"I don't feel like I'm in a position to have to answer for everyone in my party who makes a claim," he said. "Democrats aren't asked to answer every time Joe Biden says something embarrassing. So I don't know why I should answer every time a Republican does."
"I will suffice it to say," he added, "I believe the president loves America. His ideas are bad."
Others chose to avoid the issue altogether. On Thursday, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said on CNBC that "I'm not going to comment on what the president thinks or not, he can speak for himself."
During a Friday interview with CNN, Walker was again insistent on not weighing in on the controversy.
I love America. That's the only person that I can comment on is, what I think. And I think America is a great, exceptional country and I think the president is perfectly capable of answering that himself," he said.
GOP strategist Ford O'Connell said the difficulty for Republican presidential candidates lies in the attraction of taking aim at the President's policies, which Americans are widely unhappy with, but avoiding taking aim at the President himself.
"Regardless of political party, no one wants to criticize the sitting President in that way because it can be taken the wrong way by a lot of people," he said.
"But there is a concern and an alarm out there about the nature of this threat we're facing in the Middle East," O'Connell added, referencing a CNN/ORC poll out this week that showed a majority of Americans disapprove of Obama's handling of ISIS and foreign policy.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, another potential presidential contender, was perhaps most aggressive in walking that line. He acknowledged Giuliani "should have chosen different phraseology for his remarks."
"The level of the President's love for our country is immaterial at this juncture," Jindal said, adding though, that Giuliani's intended attack was "true."
"The gist of what Mayor Giuliani said -- that the President has shown himself to be completely unable to speak the truth about the nature of the threats from these ISIS terrorists — is true," Jindal said in a statement.
O'Connell warned other Republicans to take an approach similar to Jindal's, and be cautious of how they frame their attacks on the President.
"It's not what you say, it's what [the voters] hear," he said.
Democrats seized on the comments as further evidence of how extreme the Republican Party can be. Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said at the DNC's winter meeting it was fine for the parties to disagree and debate over policy.
"But for them, it's more than that. It's personal, and it's ugly, and there's no sign of it getting better," she said.
She called on the developing GOP presidential field to "stand up, say, 'enough.'"
"I would challenge my Republican colleagues and anyone in the Republican Party to say enough. They need to start leading," she said.