Republicans try to sink the president over his comment on Battleship

Mitt Romney’s campaign on Tuesday launched a rhetorical broadside against President Obama for his debate-night zinger on the future of the Navy, hoping to use the comment to sink the president’s chances in a pair of key swing states. 

During an exchange in Monday night’s final presidential debate, Obama delivered one of the more memorable lines when he parried Romney’s charge that the Navy is becoming weaker under the president’s leadership. 

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“You mentioned the Navy … and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916,” Obama said. “Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military has changed.” 

Romney has campaigned on a plan to significantly increase the Navy’s fleet — one of the few clearly defined aspects of his defense and national security strategy. 

Obama dismissed the GOP candidate’s nascent naval strategy with another one-liner. 

“It’s not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships,” the president said. 

The remarks sparked laughter among members of the debate audience at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., and were cheered by Obama supporters who felt the president made Romney look naïve about the modern military. 

But Republicans believe the comments could become a political liability for the president, particularly in the critical battleground states of Florida and Virginia, which are home to major shipyards. 

Huntington Ingalls’s shipyard in Newport News, Va., and the shipyards in Jacksonville and 

Mayport, Fla., operated by BAE Systems are among the largest facilities supporting the Navy. 

Obama’s “dismissive comments about the Navy ... should be concerning for any voter who cares about the safety and security of Americans at home and abroad,” Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) said in a statement. 

“His flippant comment about ‘horses and bayonets’ was an insult to every sailor who has put his or her life on the line for our country,” McDonnell added. 

GOP vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) also shot back against the president’s verbal jab during a Tuesday interview on CBS’s “This Morning.”

“The ocean hasn’t shrunk,” Ryan said. 

“You still have to have enough ships to have the footprint that you need … to keep our strength abroad where it needs to be.”

Obama and Romney are in a statistical tie in Virginia, according to the RealClearPolitics average of presidential polls in that state. In Florida, the RCP average shows Romney with a 1.8-point lead.

“Obama didn’t help himself” in the Tidewater region where the Virginia shipyards are located, defense analyst Loren Thompson told The Hill on Tuesday. 

Independent voters in Virginia broke heavily for Obama in the 2008 election, according to Thompson. Many of those voters had ties to the shipbuilding industry there.

The president’s comments on Monday “alienated many centrist voters” in that area, where recent polls show a virtual dead heat between Obama and Romney.

“Anytime you talk about shipbuilding … it’s going to have an impact,” Larry Korb, a defense analyst at the Center for American Progress, told The Hill. 

However, Korb noted that shipbuilders in those states “should take [Obama’s] comments as a compliment.” The president pointed out that the quality of U.S. warships being built today cancels out the need for increased numbers, Korb said. 

That said, Virginia voters along the state’s shipbuilding corridor are “absolutely incensed” over the president’s remark, said Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

Obama’s comments included several “major misrepresentations” on projections of U.S. naval power in the future, Forbes said, including the Pentagon’s ongoing strategic shift to the Pacific. 

The Navy currently has a 284-ship fleet. The Navy in March proposed a 10-year plan that would reduce the fleet to 250 with the retirement of some older ships. 

Romney wants a 350-ship fleet and proposes building 15 ships and three submarines a year for the next 10 years. 

Despite the increased capability of the modern-day U.S. fleet, the 250-ship fleet being proposed by the administration won’t be enough to support that plan, Forbes said. 

“They will not be able to make that pivot,” the Virginia Republican added. “You simply cannot get from here to there” with the fleet numbers outlined by the White House. 

That job gets more difficult with the $500 billion in looming defense budget cuts under sequestration. 

“Obama is [now] open [to the argument] he is not getting behind his key strategic initiative,” given his criticisms of Romney’s plan for the Navy, Thompson said. 

The Romney camp wasted no time in tying Obama’s Navy comments to sequestration in a new political ad released on Tuesday. 

The ad takes debate footage of Obama saying that America is stronger now than when he took office, and splices it with Romney’s comments Monday night that the U.S. Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917.

“I will not cut our military budget by a trillion dollars, which is a combination of the budget cuts the president has,” Romney says in the ad. “That, in my view, is making our future less certain and less secure.”

But the attempt to pin Obama’s comments to the sequestration argument “on the surface [is] silly, and transparently silly,” Mike Breen, executive director of the Truman National Security Project, said on Tuesday. 

Breen argued that undecided voters in the shipbuilding communities in Newport News, Mayport and other areas in Virginia and Florida understand that Obama’s argument for a smaller, more capable U.S. Navy will do more to address national security threats than simply boosting fleet numbers. 

“When it is your livelihood, you tend to know” the issues, Breen said, referring to those Virginia and Florida voters. “They understand the issues and understand what the president was saying.”