Republican presidential nominee and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney talks to senior advisors Bob White (L) and Beth Myers (C) on his campaign plane enroute to Denver, Colorado October 1, 2012, ahead of his first debate with U.S. President Barack Obama. (Photo : REUTERS/Brian Snyder)
Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney launched a fresh attempt on Monday to paint President Barack Obama as weak on foreign policy, saying he had let U.S. leadership atrophy, while the two candidates prepared for their critical first debate on Wednesday.
Romney's aides said the weak U.S. economy remains his chief priority heading into the November 6 election, but the Democratic president's handling of national security is also fair game.
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This line of attack could be tricky for Romney, who drew heavy criticism for a hasty initial reaction to violent upheavals in Egypt and Libya last month in which the U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed along with three other Americans.
Romney is under enormous pressure to perform well in Wednesday night's debate in Denver. His campaign has looked shaky since a leaked video emerged two weeks ago in which he said 47 percent of Americans are "victims" who depend on government, do not pay federal income taxes and are unlikely to support him.
Seeking to take some of the shine off Obama's national security credentials, which include the 2011 killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the Romney team aims to portray Obama as overseeing a period of America's decline in the world.
In a Wall Street Journal opinion article, Romney accused Obama of being too timid in responding to the Syrian civil war, the election of an Islamist president in Egypt, the attack on the U.S. mission in Libya, and the threat of Iran developing a nuclear weapon that it could use against U.S. ally Israel.
"These developments are not, as President Obama says, mere 'bumps in the road.' They are major issues that put our security at risk," Romney wrote.
"Yet amid this upheaval, our country seems to be at the mercy of events rather than shaping them. ... And that's dangerous. If the Middle East descends into chaos, if Iran moves toward nuclear breakout, or if Israel's security is compromised, America could be pulled into the maelstrom," he wrote.
Obama aides dismissed Romney's critiques and said he had not been specific about how he would approach the foreign policy arena as president.
"There was a lot of chest-pumping rhetoric in there. There wasn't a lot of specifics in that op-ed in how he wanted to go about ... leading the world, how he would do things differently," Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Nevada, where the president was campaigning.
Taking aim at Obama on national security may be an uphill battle for Romney. Reuters/Ipsos poll findings show Americans believe Obama has a better plan to deal with the threat of terrorism by 43 percent to about 30 percent for Romney.
DEBATE PREP, POLLS
Obama took a break from preparing for the debate to deliver pizzas to a local campaign office.
After taking pictures with the 20 or so volunteers present, he placed calls to a few people who weren't there.
"Basically, they're keeping me indoors all the time. It's a drag," he told one volunteer. "They're making me do my homework.
Given Obama's tendency to meander, aides said they have been trying to get him to give snappier answers to questions and limit the professorial nature of his responses.
Romney is still trailing Obama in opinion polls five weeks before the election. Obama maintained a lead of 5 percentage points - 46 percent to 41 percent - in a Reuters/Ipsos daily tracking poll released on Monday. Last Thursday, the same poll showed Obama with a lead of 7 points.
A CNN poll gave Obama a narrow lead of 50 percent to 47 percent, and the two men were essentially tied on the issue of who would handle the economy better.
"I think even our opponents will agree right now that this is a closing race," said Romney senior adviser Kevin Madden.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll showed Obama leading by 11 percentage points among likely voters in nine battleground states where the election likely will be decided, even as the race is essentially tied nationally.
Obama noted the closeness of the race in his remarks to campaign volunteers. "Nevada's going to be close like it's going to be close all across the country," he said.
In his Wall Street Journal piece, Romney told Obama to take a harder line with Iran and to back Israel.
"When we say an Iranian nuclear weapons capability - and the regional instability that comes with it - is unacceptable, the ayatollahs must be made to believe us," Romney wrote.
The White House argues that Western sanctions are having a crippling effect on Iran's economy as reflected by its currency losing a quarter of its value against the dollar in only a week.
As part of the Republican attempt to chip away at Obama's foreign policy record, the pro-Romney group American Crossroads released a video that questioned his reaction to the attack last month on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, in which the U.S. ambassador was killed.
"What did President Obama do on the same day as a terrorist attack on American citizens? He campaigned in Las Vegas. ... President Obama needs to learn: Being president isn't just about being on TV and protecting your job. It's about leadership. It's time for a president who gets it," the video said.
Aides said Romney plans to deliver a foreign policy address in the days following the first debate, probably next week.
Romney engaged in a session of debate preparation at a Burlington, Massachusetts hotel before flying to Denver for an evening rally. Obama was in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson working on his own preparations for the debate.
Romney's aides have been working to make sure he does not come off as scolding and to encourage him not to quibble about the rules as he did in some debates during the Republican presidential primary battle.