Romney campaign takes risk with focus on foreign policy address

Riding high after besting President Obama on the economy in their first debate, Republican candidate Mitt Romney plans to deliver a follow-up blow Monday on an issue where he's until now been far less deft: foreign policy.

With his address to the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., Romney is taking the fight to the president while images of a burning Benghazi consulate are still fresh in voters' minds. A well-received speech should help Romney set the stage for his next two bouts with Obama, and it could give a leg up to his running mate Paul Ryan, whose lack of foreign policy experience will be a handicap when he faces off against Vice President Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Thursday.

“I know the President hopes for a safer, freer, and a more prosperous Middle East allied with the United States. I share this hope. But hope is not a strategy,” Romney is expected to say in his speech, according to excerpted remarks. He will vow to “change course in the Middle East.”

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The decision to hold yet another foreign policy speech — Romney's sixth, by some estimates — just weeks before the election isn't without risks, however.

Romney has stumbled in the past with his attempts to stand out on foreign policy issues, notably with his visit abroad over the summer and his premature criticism of the Obama administration's response to the Sept. 11 riots in the Middle East when they were still unfolding.

The Obama campaign immediately counter-attacked Monday with a new ad that seeks to undermine Romney on foreign policy.

“Even Republican experts said Romney's remarks [blasting the Cairo Embassy's criticism of a U.S.-made anti-Islam film that sparked violent protests] were the 'worst possible reaction' to what happened,” the new ad says, quoting John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign adviser Anthony Cordesman. “If this is how he handles the world now, just think of what Mitt Romney might do as president.”

Some Republicans question the decision to take the focus off Obama's handling of the economy, even for a moment.

Voters, former Gov. Haley Barbour (R) of Mississippi told ABC's "This Week" last weekend, “are concerned at America's lost standing in the world.”

“But they're much more concerned about their children having jobs, about them being able to pay for their health insurance, $3.85 gasoline. They're much more concerned about that than they are about foreign policy, and that's ... why, you know, Romney has got to continue to put the spotlight back on the results of Obama's policies, which are very poor, and what he would do different that would be more promising.”

Campaign aides say they’re confident Romney will deliver in his foreign policy address.

“Particularly in light of recent events,” Romney foreign policy director Alex Wong said in a conference call with reporters, “Americans have questions about it and want to see what Gov. Romney has to offer."

Romney's new-found aggression on the issue was on full display this past week after the Obama administration finally called the Sept. 11 slaying of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans a “deliberate and organized terrorist attack.” He penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Monday calling for a “new strategy toward the Middle East,” and attacked the administration's handling of the situation in Libya on Thursday, the day after the debate.

“I believe obviously that what happened there was a tragic failure,” Romney told Fox News. “There had been warnings of a possible attack. There were requests on part of our ... diplomats there to have additional security forces; they were turned down. And then following the tragedy, we saw misleading information coming from the administration.”

Monday's speech and its expected focus on Libya dovetails conveniently with a House hearing on the security situation in Benghazi, scheduled for Wednesday. Romney could face a backlash, however, if he's seen as exploiting the deaths of Americans for political gain.

Likewise, conservatives say, he will need to offer more details about what he would do differently than Obama if he's elected. In past foreign policy speeches — at The Citadel in South Carolina last year, at the Veterans of Foreign War annual convention in Reno, in Israel and in Poland in July, and to the American Legion on the eve of his address to the Republican convention — Romney has repeatedly attacked Obama's “weakness and indecision.” But he's offered few specifics about what his plans are for Afghanistan, Iran or the broader Middle East, leaving policy experts scratching their heads.

“Any time any candidate talks about a specific problem, the context in which it happened, he also has to say, ‘And this is why I’m better,’ ” Danielle Pletka, the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told The Hill. “That’s always the missing element [with Romney]. You’ve got to make a sale to the American people on this.”

The problem for Romney is that Republicans are deeply divided on foreign policy, Democrats say, and any specifics could turn off portions of the electorate. That's especially true with regard to engagement with the Muslim world, as a wave of revolutions sweep away pro-American strongmen and replace them with democratically-elected Islamists who aren't to America's taste; before breaking for recess, no fewer than 10 Republican senators voted to end foreign aid for Egypt, Libya and Pakistan.

“In Egypt,” Romney is expected to say, “I will use our influence — including clear conditions on our aid — to urge the new government to represent all Egyptians, to build democratic institutions, and to maintain its peace treaty with Israel. And we must persuade our friends and allies to place similar stipulations on their aid.”