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Romney gains on Obama on foreign-policy issues, in time for next debate (+video)

Americans have a much-improved view of Mitt Romney's foreign-policy positions, but Obama still has the edge on which candidate would better handle international matters, a new poll shows. Monday's presidential debate is on foreign policy and national security.

By Staff writer / October 22, 2012

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney looks at a menu as he orders dinner at BurgerFi on Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012 in Delray Beach, Fla.

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Washington

The US electorate has for months given President Obama the nod over rival Mitt Romney on handling of foreign policy, but public perceptions of Mr. Romney’s positions on international issues have recently improved – just in time for Monday night’s debate focused on foreign policy and national security.

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Americans have turned increasingly negative toward China and its trade policies and have shifted in favor of a tougher approach toward Iran over the past year, according to a new Pew Research Center poll. The public's growing preference for a tougher stance toward China and Iran seems to be in sync with Romney’s harsh talk on the campaign trail about the two countries – and helps explain why he’s likely to showcase that toughness in Monday’s debate.

But the Pew Center poll also reveals a largely isolationist electorate with little appetite for US intervention in the world’s conflicts, including the fierce civil war in Syria. In that sense, the debate’s foreign-policy focus presents a potential pitfall for Romney, whose calls for a more assertive US role in the world backed by higher military spending risk turning off some voters.

“The public is decidedly more isolationist … than it has been for some time,” says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center in Washington. Although Romney “fares much better than in previous surveys,” Mr. Kohut says, the Republican’s theme of a more assertive US role in the world “is not resonating.”

The Pew poll, conducted Oct. 4-7, finds Romney and Mr. Obama running almost even on foreign policy, with 47 percent saying the president would do a better job compared with 43 percent for Romney. That represents a jump for the former Massachusetts governor, who trailed Obama by 15 percentage points in Pew’s September survey.

So what accounts for Romney’s rise in foreign policy? Kohut, a longtime analyst of public opinion, attributes some of the improvement to what he calls the “consistency factor” – that is, the uptick corresponds with a period of general improvement in Romney’s numbers compared with Obama's across a range of issues.

But there are also specific foreign-policy issues for which Romney has either caught up with the president or now surpasses him.

First on the list is China. In March, Americans preferred the option of “building a stronger relationship” on economic issues with Asia’s rising giant over the option of “getting tougher.” By October, preference on the two approaches – the first broadly corresponding with Obama administration policy, the second echoing the Romney stance – has largely reversed. 

Now 42 percent of Americans say they prefer to build a relationship with China, down from 53 percent in March. Over the same months, preference for “getting tougher” rose from 40 to 49 percent. That shift to “get tough" on China has occurred as Romney has repeatedly labeled Beijing a “cheater” in the global trade game and has insisted, as he did at the Oct. 16 debate, that he would label China a “currency manipulator” on Day 1 of his administration. 

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