Conflict in the Middle East: Benefit or detriment for Obama?

The latest surveys of likely voters show President Barack Obama pulling ahead. But Republicans and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney may have an opportunity to cast doubt on Obama's foreign policy as unrest rises in the Middle East.

David Becker/AP
President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign event at the Cashman Center, Wednesday in Las Vegas. It is unclear if the recent attack in Libya and the increasing unrest in the Middle East will harm or hurt Obama's reelection campaign, though he currently leads in the polls.

President Barack Obama is pulling away from rival Mitt Romney in polls in what might be a turning point in the US presidential campaign, but volatility in the Middle East is allowing Republicans to cast the Democrat as weak on foreign policy and could threaten his momentum.

In the latest survey to show Obama ahead, a Reuters/Ipsos online poll on Thursday gave the Democrat a 7 percentage point lead, 48 percent to 41 percent, among likely voters.

Survey aggregator Real Clear Politics' average of national polls gives Obama a 3.3-point advantage while Gallup's seven-day tracking poll of registered voters has Obama leading by 6 points, one more than a Fox News survey of likely voters.

After months of a neck-and-neck race for the Nov. 6 election, the recent data has stirred speculation that Obama may have reached a breakaway moment helped by the Democrats' convention in North Carolina last week when they laid out a case for his re-election.

"This election is far from over, and we're not inclined to make a final call until the first debate on Oct. 3, but this seems clear: the election is slipping away from Romney," said Greg Valliere of Potomac Research Group which analyzes Washington for investors.

But in a reminder of how campaigns can shift easily, Republicans began building a strong argument against Obama for failing to stop the rise of Islamists in Egypt and Libya, where the US ambassador was killed in an attack this week.

It is unclear whether Obama's lead in the polls is a residue of positive feeling from the convention, or due to more specific reasons like voter concern at the Republican ticket's plans for Medicare or Democratic ads attacking Romney's business record.

Poll leads at this stage in the race can evaporate quickly, as Republican Senator John McCain's did in the 2008 campaign.

But Obama seems to be doing something right to be able to stay ahead despite high unemployment, underscored by poor jobless figures last week. The Reuters/Ipsos poll showed Obama with a slight lead of 38 percent over 35 percent on which candidate has a better plan on jobs.

"You'd rather be in Obama's shoes today than Romney's," said Peter Brown, a pollster for Quinnipiac University.

In key states, the numbers looked grim for Romney this week too.

An EPIC-MRA poll showed Obama up 10 points in Michigan, Romney's birthplace and a state where conservative groups supporting him pulled back advertising dollars this week.

A poll released on Tuesday showed Obama up 4 points in Ohio, one of the top three battleground states.


With the home front reasonably stable for him, Obama now has one eye on the Middle East as Republicans accuse him of weakness in the face of protests at US diplomatic missions over a film many Muslims consider blasphemous.

The region has a history of upsetting US presidential races as in 1980 when the Iran hostage crisis played a part in the defeat of Democratic President Jimmy Carter.

Although the current crisis is nowhere near as serious, demonstrators attacked the US embassies in Yemen and Egypt on Thursday and American warships headed toward Libya after the US ambassador there was killed in related violence.

Obama appeared to slip up by saying that Egypt, which receives $1.3 billion a year in military assistance from the United States, is not an ally.

"I don't think that we would consider them an ally, but we don't consider them an enemy," Obama told Spanish-language network Telemundo on Wednesday.

Former election opponent McCain appeared on a series of morning television shows to accuse Obama of lacking resolve.

"The fact is the United States in the Middle East is weak," the senator told MSNBC. "We are seen as withdrawing, and we are paying a price for that weakness, whether it be unraveling in Iraq, the tragedy in Syria, the tensions with Israel, the Afghan situation unraveling. There is a lack of leadership there."

Obama vowed that those responsible for killing the ambassador in Libya and three other Americans would be brought to justice.

"No act of violence shakes the resolve of the United States of America," Obama told an audience of 8,400 in Golden, Colorado.

Romney was accused earlier this week of being too hasty to criticize the president in the middle of a foreign crisis, as well as giving wrong information about the Obama administration's reaction to the storming of the embassy in Egypt.

He recalibrated his argument against Obama on Thursday, stopping short of repeating charges that Obama is apologizing to America's enemies.

"As we watch the world today, sometimes it seems that we're at the mercy of events, instead of shaping events, and a strong America is essential to shape events," he told supporters at a rally in Fairfax, a Washington suburb.

Although foreign policy dominated headlines this week, the Federal Reserve's decision to launch another aggressive stimulus program on Thursday presented a further opportunity for Romney to return the presidential campaign to economic issues, long considered the former private equity executive's strong suit.

Additional reporting by Margaret Chabourn in Washington, Steve Holland in Fairfax, Virginia, and Andy Sullivan in Golden, Colorado; editing by Alistair Bell and Mohammad Zargham.

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