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Obama tells Russia that election will bring 'flexibility' on missile defense

The president's comments were caught accidentally by a microphone left on during a private conversation with Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev.

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Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who often faces charges of having been flexible on his own policies over the years, also issued a statement saying Obama "needs to level with the American public about his real agenda."

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Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said Romney "is undermining his credibility by distorting the president's words."

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich also questioned Obama's motives.

"I'm curious, how many other countries has the president promised that he'd have a lot more flexibility the morning he doesn't have to answer to the American people?" Gingrich said on CNN.

Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, wrote to the president requesting an "urgent explanation of (his) comments." Turner said Congress "has made exquisitely clear to your administration and to other nations that it will block all attempts to weaken U.S. missile defenses."

The Republicans' sharp remarks underscore increased willingness of politicians to criticize a president on a foreign trip. The old adage "politics ends at the water's edge" is a casualty of the nation's heightened partisanship in recent decades.

Tensions over missile defense have threatened to upend the overall thawing of relations between the U.S. and Russia in recent years.

Both leaders acknowledged as much in their public statements to reporters following their meeting. Obama said there was "more work to do" to bridge their differences. Medvedev said each country had its own position on missile defense but there was still time to find a solution.

Congress, as part of the fiscal 2012 defense authorization act, constrained Obama's ability to share classified U.S. missile defense information with Russia. Obama signed that legislation into law.

Russia has strongly criticized plans for a U.S.-led NATO missile defense in Europe. Russian officials believe the planned missile shield would target Russia's nuclear deterrent and undermine global stability. The U.S. says the planned missile shield is intended to counter threats from Iran.

Putin said earlier this month that Washington's refusal to offer Moscow written guarantees that its missile defense system would not be aimed against Russia deepened its concerns. Putin won elections earlier this year and will return to the presidency later this spring. He is expected to name Medvedev prime minister.

QUIZ: How much do you know about Russia? 

The United States and Russia have also clashed recently over their approach to dealing with violence in Syria. The U.S. has sharply criticized Russia for opposing U.N. Security Council action calling on Syria's president to leave power.

Obama said Monday that despite past differences on Syria, he and Medvedev agreed they both support U.N. envoy Kofi Annan's efforts to end the violence in Syria and move the country toward a "legitimate" government.

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