Amid violent flare-ups in the Middle East, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is trying to prove his own readiness to be commander in chief and force President Barack Obama to answer for turmoil in places like Libya, where terrorists killed the U.S. ambassador on the anniversary of 9/11.
Romney advisers argue that the stepped-up foreign policy criticism dovetails with a key piece of his central argument: Obama is in over his head, and the country will be worse off if he gets a second term.
Yet, there's a disconnect between what Romney and his team are talking about nationally and what he is running on in the states, where his TV advertising is largely focused on the economy and jobs — voters' No. 1 issue — ahead of Wednesday's presidential debate. All that's leaving Romney open to criticism that his campaign is searching for a winning pitch just one month before the election and with voting under way in many states.
"Our country seems to be at the mercy of events rather than shaping them. We're not moving them in a direction that protects our people or our allies. And that's dangerous," Romney wrote in a column published Monday in The Wall Street Journal.
The Obama campaign reacted forcefully, calling Romney's foreign policy stances "incoherent" and "reckless, erratic and irresponsible."
Romney running mate Paul Ryan piled on, telling radio host Laura Ingraham that Obama's administration hasn't given the public the full story on the circumstances that led to the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi, Libya
"It's really indicative of a broader failure of this administration's foreign policy and the crisis that is taking place across the Middle East," Ryan said. "It is clear the administration's policy unraveled."
Romney's intense focus on foreign policy is intended to undercut what the Obama campaign has seen as the president's ironclad international affairs credentials — and send a message to voters that they can trust the Republican on foreign policy despite limited experience. To that end, Romney's advisers said he's planning a major foreign policy speech, to be delivered sometime after Wednesday's debate.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki was dismissive of the argument.
"There is no op-ed or no speech which we've heard he may or may not give at some point that is going to change the view of the American people that he has been reckless, erratic and irresponsible on foreign policy issues every time he has had an opportunity to speak to them," Psaki told reporters in Henderson, Nev., where Obama is preparing for the debate.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Romney's op-ed "contains no specifics or an alternative," adding that most of the positions Romney was advocating "are no different from what the president is actually doing."
One possible exception is Iran, Carney said, where Romney appears to oppose U.S. policy of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
"The alternative is war," Carney said. "As the president has said, if Gov. Romney and other critics are advocating that position (war against Iran), they ought to say so clearly."
Foreign policy is the latest in a series of political openings that Romney has tried to exploit in recent weeks, as he has fallen behind the president in polls in key battleground states and in national surveys. In recent weeks, Romney also has castigated Obama on the coal industry, defense cuts, wealth redistribution and the president's comment that it's not possible to change Washington from the inside.
But unlike some of those issues, Romney's campaign hasn't put serious money behind the foreign policy line of criticism.
Paid TV ads in key states don't largely mention international affairs. The third-party group American Crossroads has a produced a Web video assailing Obama's foreign policy, but it's not on the air. Polls show foreign policy far down on the list of voters' concerns and Obama leads Romney on the issue.
Romney's campaign had spent much of the year focusing its argument against Obama's handling of the economy.
Then came Sept. 11, and as unrest flared in the Middle East, Romney issued a late-night statement assailing Obama before it was clear that Stevens and three other Americans had been killed in the terrorist attack on the consulate in Benghazi. The timing of Romney's initial response prompted heartburn within the GOP. Yet, Romney pressed ahead with his criticism that Obama was a weak leader whose posture abroad was hurting U.S. interests, and congressional Republicans have piled on about the administration's changing statements on the Libya attack.
Romney campaign aides said internal polls showed the criticism of Obama's foreign policy resonating with voters in the days after Stevens' death. But any traction Romney was getting on that front was stunted when a video surfaced of Romney telling donors that 47 percent of Americans believe they are victims entitled to government assistance. Obama has highlighted that comment repeatedly in TV ads and at campaign rallies, building on his post-convention momentum.
Since then, the administration's statements on Libya have evolved, with officials struggling to explain just what happened in Benghazi.
"This was an event obviously, a complex event. We're only talking about a matter of weeks here," Plouffe said. "So as information was arrived at, as determinations were made, that was shared with the American people. And I think again the focus needs to be how do we make sure that our facilities and our ambassadors and our personnel are secure going forward."
Republicans have looked to capitalize, raising questions about why the consulate in Benghazi wasn't better protected and why the ambassador wasn't traveling with more security.
"It was either willful ignorance or abysmal intelligence to think that people come to spontaneous demonstrations with heavy weapons, mortars, and the attack goes on for hours," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told CNN on Sunday.
AP White House Correspondent Ben Feller, AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius and Associated Press writers Steve Peoples and Matthew Daly in Washington and Julie Pace in Henderson, Nev., contributed to this report.
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