Romney shifts to foreign policy center in debate

A once-hawkish Mitt Romney scrambled to position himself as a centrist on global affairs in his final debate with President Barack Obama, a dramatic shift for the Republican challenger as both candidates on Tuesday launch a final two-week campaign blitz in the deadlocked race for the White House.

By (AP)

Published: Tue 23 Oct 2012, 7:14 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 1:24 PM

Romney appeared determined to emerge mistake-free from the last of three presidential debates, this one on foreign policy, where Obama leads among voters. Romney appeared to have succeeded, but his performance gave the Obama campaign more ammunition for its allegations that Romney is willing to suddenly shift or get rid of more conservative positions to satisfy the immediate needs of his bid to unseat the president.

On most issues facing the United States abroad, Romney largely expressed agreement with how Obama has conducted U.S. foreign policy. On the violence in Syria, for example, he said he would not get the United States involved militarily, even though he wants to find a way to arm the opposition.

Most Americans, however, are focused not on world affairs but on the struggling U.S. economy. Obama and Romney will spend the last two weeks before the Nov. 6 election appealing to the tiny slice of still-undecided voters in a race where polls show the electorate evenly split.

The key to victory lies in the nine U.S. states that do not reliably vote for the candidate of one party or the other. The president is not chosen according to the popular nationwide vote but in state-by-state contests. The system makes it possible for a candidate to win the popular vote but lose the election, as in former Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 defeat.

Romney’s move to the center in Monday’s debate showed he was determined not to cause further unease among war-weary Americans who are overwhelmingly in favor of ending the Afghan war.

To that end, he dramatically shifted his position and agreed with the president that all U.S. forces should be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Romney previously had criticized Obama for setting such a date for withdrawal, saying he was giving the Taliban insurgency and its al-Qaida allies a date after which the militants could begin a drive to retake the country. Romney also dropped the conditions he had set for troop withdrawal.

Romney even congratulated Obama “on taking out Osama bin Laden and taking on the leadership of al-Qaida,” but he added, “We can’t kill our way out of this mess. ... We must have a comprehensive and robust strategy.” He did not offer specifics.

Romney also left behind his criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of explanations about what happened in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which the U.S. ambassador and three others protecting him were killed.

The most divisive issue in Monday’s debate was how to deal with Iran’s alleged drive to build a nuclear weapon. And even in that case, Romney said he approved of Obama’s use of international sanctions that have caused severe economic shock to the Iranian economy. Obama said that left Romney able only to repeat administration policy, but “more loudly.” Both men stood by their vows to use the military, if necessary, to prevent Iran from joining the club of nuclear-armed countries.

Both candidates underscored their support for Israel against a threat from Iran. “If Israel is attacked, we have their back,” said Romney — moments after Obama vowed, “I will stand with Israel if Israel is attacked.”

Romney was critical of Obama’s handling of the Arab Spring, saying that despite early hopes, the ouster of despotic regimes in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere since early last year has resulted in a “rising tide of chaos.” He said the president has failed to come up with a coherent policy to grapple with change sweeping the Middle East.

Notably, neither candidate mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

After Romney, criticizing the administration’s defense budget, disapprovingly said the U.S. Navy has fewer ships than at any time since the end of World War I, Obama mockingly accused his rival of not understanding how the military works. “We also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military has changed,” he said. “We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them.”

Romney repeated his threat to designate China a currency manipulator and punish it for intellectual property theft. He said China can be a partner, but “that does not mean they can just roll all over us and take our jobs.”

Obama described China as both an adversary and a potential international partner. He defended his record in addressing China’s trade violations, saying his administration had brought more cases against Beijing in the World Trade Organization than George W. Bush had in two terms.

The debates done, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden campaign together in Ohio on Tuesday. The president then splits off on what his campaign is describing as a two-day “around-the-clock” blitz to six more battleground states.

With the debates over, Obama’s campaign released a 20-page booklet called the “Blueprint for America’s Future” on Tuesday to promote a second-term agenda, responding to Republican criticism that the president has not clearly articulated a plan for the next four years.

Romney and running mate Paul Ryan’s schedule reflects the strategy of driving up Republican vote totals in areas such as the Denver suburbs and Cincinnati, Ohio. They start their two-week dash in Nevada, before moving to the Denver area for a rally with rocker-rapper Kid Rock and country music’s Rodney Atkins.

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