Four years ago during the final debate between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, Obama famously laughed off Romney's contention that the Navy had too few ships.
"We also have fewer horses and bayonets," Obama retorted, implying concern about surface ship numbers was outdated. "The question is not a game of battleship where we're counting ships. It's 'What are our capabilities?'"
That exchange would never take place today, said Rep. Randy Forbes, a Republican from Virginia and chairman of the House Armed Services' Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.
Speaking to a group of reporters Tuesday, Forbes said this year's slate of presidential contenders and the public at large are more keenly concerned with national defense and the Navy, in particular, than they had been in elections past.
"Go back to 2008. Did you really hear anything about the Navy? Did you really hear anyone talking about national defense?" he said. Referring to Romney's shipbuilding concerns, "nobody's pooh-poohing that today," he said.
After years of discussing the impact of budget caps on defense capabilities, shoring up military spending is now a staple talking point for the Republican presidential contenders. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has also sounded hawkish, saying at a November debate that ISIS "cannot be contained. It must be defeated."
Forbes said he also saw an increased interest and concern about defense and the size of the Navy from the public. A lawmaker colleague from Texas, he said, had confided that on a recent trip to his district, defense had been among the top two topics raised at every town hall meeting -- for the first time in memory.
"They've seen people being lined up and beheaded. They've seen ISIS attacks around the globe. They see things happening in Paris, they see things happening in US," Forbes said, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. "The public is getting, one, that national defense is hugely important, and two, that the world is a lot more global than maybe even they thought and what we do in one part of the world does really impact what happens here at home."
And when it comes to global presence and fight, Forbes said, attention turns to the Navy.
"If you see some of the votes we've had on keeping 11 carriers, on funding for the military, on the Sea-Based Deterrence Fund, three or four years ago, we wouldn't have won some of those funding fights. These votes were overwhelming as they came in," he said. "I do definitely think there's a change. Candidates are not only talking about national defense. Almost to a person, they're talking about the Navy and the importance of rebuilding the Navy."
The outlook of the sea service in coming years will be made clearer next week with the release of the Pentagon's budget request for fiscal 2017, which begins Oct. 1.
For the Navy, one key point of contention has been the future of its Littoral Combat Ship and Frigate program. In December, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter ordered the Navy in a memo to reduce its LCS/frigate buy by 12 ships and down-select to one builder by fiscal 2019. The memo contends that the Navy has overemphasized ships while paying too little attention to weapons and aircraft.
Forbes called the situation a false choice, saying the Navy needed enough money to address ship scarcity that might limit capability in a future fight and still be able to pay for other programs.
"Here's the problem we're looking at, we need to be able to say this one-third, one-third, one-third allocation we've always used, maybe we don't need to do that anymore," he said. "And everyone at the Pentagon agrees, that's an arbitrary allocation that you have. So I think that's a false choice, kind of a Sophie's choice you have there."