Mitt Romney's attacks on President Obama's foreign policy record are intended to set up a broader indictment of Obama on the 2012 election’s central issue: the economy.
Republican political advisers say the Romney campaign hopes the criticism on foreign policy blends into the larger argument that Obama is a weak leader on domestic and foreign issues.
“The Romney guys see foreign policy as a part of a larger narrative that President Obama's leadership is lacking,” said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell. "If they can tag him as leading from behind abroad, they can turn around and tag him with the same thing at home on domestic issues like the economy.”
The risk to the strategy is that the emphasis on foreign policy takes Romney away from talking directly about the economy, which is the central theme of the election. GOP strategists have said Romney should focus on the economy every day.
But Republicans say Romney is at the point in the election where he needs to take some risks.
The president is enjoying a bounce in polls after the Democratic National Convention, and some polls suggest his lead in the swing states of Ohio, Virginia, and Florida has solidified.
“Politically, this was a life raft that was thrown out to Romney that he grabbed, and now they're paddling,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. “This is a very uncertain situation, and Obama is sort of reacting, he's not out ahead of things and it could get a lot worse. For Romney, he's building off these events.”
Vice presidential nominee Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanNo time for the timid: The dual threats of progressives and Trump Juan Williams: Pelosi shows her power Cheney takes shot at Trump: 'I like Republican presidents who win re-election' MORE pressed the issue of leadership during his address on Friday to the Values Voter Summit in Washington.
The Wisconsin lawmaker gave a laundry list of foreign policy concerns facing the nation.
“Amid all these threats and dangers, what we do not see is steady, consistent American leadership,” Ryan said. Just a few lines later in his speech, he made the connection to the economy, saying that “in the all-important election of 2012, values voters are also economic voters.”
Campaign aides said Romney explicitly made the connection between the economy and foreign policy in a Virginia address on Thursday.
“We're going to make sure we have the jobs that we need. America's going to remain strong… As we watched the world today, sometimes it seems that we're at the mercy of events instead of shaping events and a strong America's essential to shape events,” Romney said.
GOP strategists say linking the two issues is a crucial point for the Romney-Ryan ticket.
“Watching Paul Ryan's speech today at the Value Voter summit, it took a perfect blend criticizing the president on foreign policy and his economic record,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “Should this crisis subside, they'll go back to talking about the economy with a strong message, and if it doesn't, then that's also big.”
One way both Romney and Ryan have looked to do so is by tying the unrest in the Middle East to the need for a strong military — and by extension, the need to avoid looming sequestration cuts.
“Sequestration is certainly the better way to do it,” O’Connell said. “Shoot it down to your battlegrounds. What states are most affected by sequestration? It’s North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida where you have large military installations. The foreign policy is just setting up the debate.”
Republicans say Romney and Ryan also faced risks if they said nothing in response to the violence in the Middle East.
“If he had not spoken about the current state in the Middle East, he would have been accused as weak as foreign policy or not having the credentials to talk,” said Bonjean. “While there are critics going after Romney on this, it makes perfect sense when facing a crisis the American people want to see what their elected officials and candidates would do.”
But it’s just that thing — reacting to the crisis — that Democrats see as the key to rebutting the Romney attack.
“The advantage I’d put in any incumbent president’s favor is that while Mitt Romney can talk about what he would do, President Obama can actually do it and you’ll see that over the next couple of weeks,” said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons.
And if Romney’s attacks on foreign policy ultimately fail to resonate because President Obama’s reaction to the crisis is perceived as strong or effective, then Romney has lost extraordinarily valuable time in the final weeks before the election playing away from his strength, Simmons argued.
“If they’re successful, they have a chance, but they don’t have a lot of time,” Simmons said. “They have seven weeks to change an opinion people have developed over the last five or six years.”