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Events Abroad Take Bigger Slice of Campaign Debate

Jim Rutenberg and Ashley Parker|The New York Times
Friday, 14 Sep 2012 | 2:06 AM ET

President Obamaand Mitt Romney entered new political terrain on Thursday as their campaign debate moved more solidly onto issues of foreign policy, a subject that had largely been absent as a major general election issue until this week.

An Egyptian protester grabs a tear gas canister to throw back towards the riot police during clashes near the US embassy in Cairo.
Khaled Desouki | AFP | Getty Images
An Egyptian protester grabs a tear gas canister to throw back towards the riot police during clashes near the US embassy in Cairo.

With the killings of four United States diplomats in Libya thrusting foreign policy to the forefront of the race, Mr. Romney sought to broaden his indictment of Mr. Obama’s approach to the world a day after he was roundly criticized for his initial reaction to the president’s handling of the crisis in Libya and Egypt. But officials in the Obama campaign were almost welcoming the fight, saying they were glad to be challenged on what they now consider the comfortable territory of foreign policy.

For instance, in the last national New York Times/CBS poll, in July, 47 percent of respondents said Mr. Obama would do a better job on foreign policy; 40 percent said that about Mr. Romney. Mr. Obama’s aides said that rather than sparring with Mr. Romney and politicizing the turmoil, the president was best served politically by focusing on his day job managing the situation.

Yet in spite of the rapidly unfolding events in the Mideast, Mr. Obama decided to continue his campaign schedule, and he spent the second day of what was to be an upbeat swing through the politically vital Mountain West on Thursday balancing the somber tone that a foreign policy crisis demands and the partisan speech that 8,000 Coloradans came to hear in Golden.

At an outdoor rally where the crowd was so primed with excitement that it cheered a flock of honking geese that flew overhead before the president spoke, Mr. Obama began with a sad reminder of the four Americans’ deaths in Libya.

“Obviously, our hearts are heavy this week,” Mr. Obama said, as a hush went across the field. But he vowed to his wider television audience, “I want people around the world to hear me — to all those who would do us harm: No act of terror will go unpunished,” adding, “no act of violence shakes the resolve of the United States of America.”

One word went unspoken: Romney. Instead, Mr. Obama only referred to his “opponent,” which aides said was prompted by the president’s desire to remain mindful of the tone of his political oratory as the Mideast crisis continues to unfold.

But his aides acknowledged that they were watching the developments overseas carefully, with the prospect that if violent protests continue he could face new questions about his approach to handling the nascent democracies in Egypt and Libya.

Even as the Obama campaign expressed confidence on the foreign policy front, it was being pressed on a statement Mr. Obama made in an interview with the Spanish-language network Telemundo that he did not consider the new Egyptian governmentan ally, though he also said he did not consider it an enemy, either.

Mr. Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, said, “The president, in diplomatic and legal terms, was speaking correctly.”

He said Mr. Obama was using “ally” as a “legal term of art.” “We do not have an alliance treaty with Egypt,” he said, adding, “But as the president has said, Egypt is a longstanding and close partner of the United States, and we have built on that foundation in supporting Egypt’s transition to democracy and working with the new government.”

Mr. Romney, in an appearance in Virginia, said that under his presidency the United States would regain its role in shaping events in the volatile region.

“The world needs American leadership; the Middle East needs American leadership,” Mr. Romney said at a rally in Fairfax, Va. “And I intend to be a president that provides the leadership that America respects and will keep us admired throughout the world.”

Though Mr. Romney’s aides had dismissed criticism from even some Republicans that his initial response to the Mideast violence was overly political — and his comments received support on Thursday from National Review and an editorial in The Wall Street Journal — he did not repeat his attack on Thursday, and struck a more sober note.

“I also recognize that right now we’re in mourning,” Mr. Romney said, referring to the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevensand three others. “We’ve lost four of our diplomats across the world; we’re thinking about their families and those that they’ve left behind.”

At the mention of Libya, a man in the crowd shouted, “Why are you politicizing Libya?”

“I would offer a moment of silence,” Mr. Romney said sharply as the crowd sought to shout the man down, “but one gentleman doesn’t want to be silent so we’re going to keep on going.”

Still, Mr. Romney attacked Mr. Obama as weak in dealing with China, and tied him to the large military cuts that may loom as a result of the budget deal he struck with Congress last year, which Mr. Romney’s running mate, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, voted for. And Mr. Romney also faulted Mr. Obama’s overall approach to American leadership abroad.

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