Evan Vucci/AP
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.

Romney gains on Obama on foreign-policy issues, in time for next debate

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.

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.

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. 

Then there is Iran. The poll finds Americans about split on which candidate would better handle the issue of Iran’s nuclear program: 45 percent choose Obama, while 44 percent choose Romney.

But the poll also finds a measurable uptick in a public preference for “taking a firm stand” with Iran; “avoiding military conflict with Iran” is now the priority for just over a third of respondents, down from 41 percent earlier in the year.

At the same time, however, Americans say they want less US involvement in the Middle East and in the political upheavals sweeping the region. Driving that sense of caution is a broad skepticism about the outcome of the revolutions termed the “Arab Awakening.”

After witnessing almost two years of sweeping change across the region, Americans largely and across party lines have a preference for stable regimes over democracy’s spread and the instability that can accompany it – and they are skeptical that the changes will result in significant improvement in the region.

“The public is much more dubious that the changes will lead to lasting improvements in people’s lives,” Kohut says.

Americans are also broadly unenthusiastic about any form of US intervention in Syria, tending rather to support the idea that the US should not try to solve the world’s problems. But one area where a partisan divide shows up is on Libya, and in particular on the Obama administration’s handling of the terrorist attack on the consulate in Benghazi.

In an additional line of questioning conducted Oct. 12-14, Pew found Republican respondents are much more likely than Democrats – or independents – to say they are closely following the public debate over the Libya attack, and from there to say that they disapprove of the administration’s handling of the event.

Voters continue to say that international issues will have an impact on how they vote, even though Americans seem less enthusiastic than at any time since the end of the cold war about US involvement in solving the world’s problems.

In a recent survey by the Better World Campaign, three-fourths of voters said a presidential candidate’s stance on foreign policy would be “important” in determining their vote.

“Three of the top responses given to explain the priority they give to foreign policy are that it’s important for the US to have allies, it’s important for the US to be seen as a leader on critical international issues, and that foreign policy is important to national security,” says Peter Yeo, executive director of the Better World Campaign, an organization that promotes US-United Nations cooperation on key development and global health issues.

Voters want to hear more about concerns such as how the candidates would end the war in Afghanistan, how they would address Iran’s nuclear program and relations with Israel, and how they would approach events in the Middle East, Mr. Yeo says.

Pew’s Kohut says voters do take foreign-policy issues seriously, but he suggests that those tuning into Monday’s debate will be watching not just for the candidates’ positions on foreign-policy issues, but also to see how they handle answering tough questions and which man comes across as the strongest leader.

“This is an election driven by domestic issues,” Kohut says. “Americans are not saying, ‘We aren’t going to play a role in the world,’ but they are saying, ‘We want a focus on home.’ ”

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