Buoyed by better poll numbers and a debate triumph, White House challenger Mitt Romney sought to build momentum by vowing to restore strong US leadership in the Middle East.
The Republican flagbearer accused President Barack Obama of putting the security of the United States and its allies at risk by displaying weakness in a volatile region that he said was clamoring for American leadership.
“I know that America is going to come back, because I’ve seen the heart of the American people,” he declared before a windswept crowd that had braved pouring rain to see him give a speech against a backdrop of a naval shipyard.
“We are going to win this. We are taking back the White House. Your courage encourages me,” he declared, in the day’s second of two addresses in the critical swing state of Virginia.
Romney began the race determined to focus on the struggling US economy but barely made any headway in the polls until he scored a rare victory in his first televised face-to-face debate with Obama.
Now he has turned to foreign policy, hoping a wave of anti-American violence and fears over Iran’s nuclear program will efface memories of Obama’s starring role in the defeat and death of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden and Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi.
With barely four weeks to go until the November 6 election, Romney muscled in on Obama’s turf in a major foreign policy address to the Virginia Military Institute.
“The president has failed to lead in Syria, where more than 30,000 men, women and children have been massacred by the Assad regime over the past 20 months,” Romney declared.
He said Syria’s rebels need more powerful weapons to battle Bashar al-Assad’s troops and claimed Obama’s handling of the crisis was emblematic of a president who does not “shape history” but opts to “lead from behind.”
“In Syria, I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets,” Romney said.
But the Republican challenger stepped carefully, refusing to commit any future US government to directly providing weapons to rebels — some of whom are known to have sympathy for or ties to extremist Islamist groups.
Romney admitted Obama had had some foreign policy successes, but said the administration had not done enough to halt Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons or to protect four US diplomats killed by Libya militia fighters.
“It is clear the risk of conflict in the region is higher now than when the president took office,” he said. “It is time to change course.”
Romney also threw down the gauntlet to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, saying that if elected he would show “no flexibility” on missile defense, a swipe at Obama, who promised the Kremlin just that in the event of his re-election.
Madeleine Albright, who was secretary of state under Democrat Bill Clinton and is now a professor of international relations, gave Romney’s foreign policy declarations a “C grade” and branded them dangerously vague.
Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, said that with the economy showing some recent stability and unemployment dipping below 8.0 percent for the first time since the start of Obama’s presidency, the Republican nominee was making foreign policy his new target.
“The Romney campaign is looking to go kind of where the ducks are,” he told the PBS News Hour.
“At this moment, the economic numbers are good for the White House, but there is more and more controversy about foreign policy and leadership.”
The first surveys since the debate indicated a bounce for Romney, but it was too early to tell how lasting it will be, especially in the key battleground states that will decide the election.
Some national polls showed the candidates once more neck-and-neck or, in some cases, Romney taking the lead, although this is unlikely to affect the result unless it translates to breakthroughs in battleground states like Virginia and Ohio.
Romney and Obama, who was raising money from major donors Monday in California, are each scheduled to campaign in Ohio on Tuesday.