Bernie Sanders might be a hawk, but he'd rather talk about Wall Street

Story highlights

  • Bernie Sanders is offering up minimal comment on the Paris attacks and ISIS, while he keeps his focus trained on the domestic issues which have made him popular with the liberal base
  • For many Sanders supporters at Cleveland State University Monday night, that was just fine, but other Democratic voters at his first rally in Ohio said they were looking for more on his foreign policy plans

Cleveland (CNN)Bernie Sanders has a surprise for the liberals fueling his upstart presidential campaign: He's a bit more hawkish on foreign policy than they might expect.

Sanders outlined his plan for handling the rise of ISIS and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to CNN on Monday night, and it is akin to the path charted by President Barack Obama.
"Look, I think the President is trying to do the right thing. And what he's trying to do is put together a coalition of the Western democracies along with the Muslim nations to destroy ISIS, while at the same time making sure that we're not involved in a perpetual war in the Middle East," Sanders told CNN after a speech here.
    "My own view is that the major issue that we have right now is to destroy ISIS. And I think we've got to work toward a political agreement to get Assad out of office," Sanders said. "But the highest priority right now is to work with Russia, to work with Iran, work with Saudi Arabia to destroy ISIS."
    But make no mistake, despite Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris, Sanders isn't changing his campaign's approach. For the Vermont senator, domestic policy is where it's at.
    Sanders opened his speech before about 6,000 people packed into Cleveland State University's Wolstein Center by railing about Republicans and the Iraq War, to loud cheers, but he quickly shifted back to his economic stump speech.
    His speech was reminiscent in style of his performance during the second Democratic debate Saturday night. His hard pivot in the opening from the Paris attacks to the economy drew derision from some pundits.
    Some Ohioans said they were looking for more on the topic of the moment.
    Karen Patterson, 72, a retired teacher from Cleveland, explained her disappointment with Sanders' answers on foreign policy by summing up his opening talk from his debate.
    "'Oh it's a shame, we feel for them. And here's the economic policy,'" Patterson said Sanders sounded like. "So he was not prepared, and that was alarming to me."
    As she walked into his speech Monday night, Patterson, who said she was split between Hillary Clinton and Sanders, said she was confident Sanders would talk more about his plans for foreign policy.
    And Sanders delivered some zingers at the top of his speech. He weaved the news of Republican governors refusing to accept Syrian refugees with the failures of former President George W. Bush in Iraq into the biggest applause line of the night.
    "We gotta be tough, but not stupid!!" he yelled.
    "I believe it's too hard to tell right now what we should do," said James Eckman, 26, a Catholic grade school teacher from Akron, Ohio, as he stood in line Monday afternoon. "I said before, this is a new kind of war and you can't immediately put boots on the ground for a select few who carry out these terrorist attacks."
    Eckman said he was there to hear more from Sanders.
    "That's why I'm here: to hear more," he said. "Time will tell what we should do, but I don't think rushing to conclusions and going in there and deploying our troops right away is a good response, because we've done that before, in Iraq, and it came back to haunt us --- case in point."
    The issue has not exploded for Democrats quite the same way as Republicans. And Sanders stumbled into a small victory during the debate when Clinton, who was widely expected to dominate by touting her deep resume, slipped in response to a Wall Street attack from the Vermont senator.
    If you're the Sanders campaign, the best thing to do may be laying back, as Sanders has done so far, at least one Democratic strategist said.
    "Give it space as a tragedy," said Holly Shulman, former communications director for the Democratic Party. Shulman, who is unaligned with any campaign, said it may be best to let Republicans run out in front on the issue and then hit them.
    Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Poll, said it's not immediately clear how Democratic voters are reacting to the Paris attacks.
    "Sanders initial reaction seemed to be ignore it," Murray said. "Will you start losing support with that because it looks like you're out of touch with the full scope of what the President of the United States has to deal with?"
    Democratic voters may have been clear in their opposition to the Iraq War a decade ago, but the Paris attacks and ISIS raise new questions that haven't been tested yet, he said. It's an unpolled issue, thus far, for Democrats.
    That's not to say Sanders has avoided the issue completely. On Sunday, during a campaign stop in Indianola, Iowa, Sanders floated working with Russia and Iran to take out ISIS.
    "We have different points of view ... but Russia has got to join us. We are concerned about Iran, but Iran has to join us. We have concerns about Saudi Arabia, but Saudi Arabia has to join us," Sanders said during a speech at Simpson College. "If all over the world these attacks are taking place, the world has got to come together."
    Monday was Sanders' first major rally in Ohio, a Democratic stronghold and key base of union support in the nation's Rust Belt. And Sanders' famously ardent supporters seemed no less bowed by his hawkish answers in the last few days.
    Many of them also had his position down cold on the nexus between climate change and terrorism -- an answer some pundits knocked him for during Saturday's debate.
    "What he said about environmentalism and climate warming being the number one issue, I really feel what he's saying is that we are at a precipice and what's going to happen is there's going to be shortages of resources," said Martha Fort, 60, a painter from Butler, Ohio. "And that's what he meant as the link with terrorism, I believe."