BURLINGTON, Mass. (AP) — 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 11th 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 in Denver. 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.
"For the last four years we've had a foreign policy led by a president who believes that the strength of his personality is going to get people to do the right things. Well, we've seen fires burning in U.S. embassies around the world," Romney told voters in Colorado on Monday night, echoing a column he published in The Wall Street Journal earlier in the day.
"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.
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."