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Foreign Policy Pulls Political Focus


Joined now by Ron Elving, NPR's senior Washington editor in our studios. Ron, thanks very much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: We just heard Congressman Ryan criticize President Obama for what he considers a lack of U.S. leadership in the Middle East. Of course, this is the week of attacks on U.S. embassies around the world that gave foreign policy new prominence in the campaign. It's unclear, obviously, how long some of that violence might last. What about the volatility we see almost every day. How could that affect the presidential campaign?

ELVING: It's never good, obviously, for a president to turn on the television and see visions of gunfire around U.S. embassies, and it brings back a lot of bad memories for Americans to see violence at our embassies anywhere. Foreign policy is usually not a big issue in presidential campaigns unless it becomes the obsessive focus of the campaign, as Vietnam did for many and the war in Iraq did for some. So, it's a big potential negative for the Obama campaign. And we'll need to see how far these protests go and how long they last.

SIMON: How does Mitt Romney, the Republican opponent, make the points he wants to on U.S. foreign policy without risking the criticism he got this week for speaking out really within hours after an embassy attack and seeming as if he was taking political advantage?

ELVING: The first couple of days were not well-staged. They confused the sequence of events. They seemed to be too eager to turn a tragedy to their political benefit. Toward the end of the week, they seemed to get their posture straight, and this was in, to some degree, response to criticism that they received from some Republicans. And it's an unnecessary misstep for them at a time when the focus really should have been on the events themselves. And politically, it's a moment for them really to stand back and let the bad pictures tell the story.

SIMON: What does Governor Romney say he'd do differently as president?

ELVING: The basic Romney position is that the Obama administration invites trouble and turmoil in these sensitive parts of the world by being too soft, particularly in the Middle East - too eager to talk, too eager to bargain, show empathy with people in that region, not enough emphasis on strength and projection of power and resoluteness - a word that Mitt Romney likes to use. The former governor says that he would maintain a higher level of defense spending and project a tougher America. And he has told us that he would want to be much closer to Israel and to their current prime minister, Netanyahu.

SIMON: You're a student of political history. Is there something in recent past elections from which we can learn?

ELVING: Certainly nothing equivalent at this point, but memories are stirred going back, oh, 30-some years. You have, of course, the classic 1980 election where Jimmy Carter was trying to free the hostages being held at the U.S. embassy in Tehran - a terrible burden for him in that election, although not the only one. And it certainly contributed to Carter's defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980. We might also think more recently of the 2004 election, where the war in Iraq had gone from an initial victory to an albatross and a huge question mark for then-President George W. Bush. In the end, the election was close but the incumbent survived.

SIMON: Latest polls show President Obama with a small lead in the popular vote over Mitt Romney, a lead of several points in some of the key battleground states. What do you find telling in those poll results?

ELVING: We should say first that no polls really have factored in yet these events in North Africa. Most of these polls were taken before the killing of the ambassador in Libya. But we did see a consistent series of polls after the two party's political conventions were over. And they showed the president consistently ahead nationally by as few as one or two, up to five or six points. And in crucial battleground states, as you say, like Florida, Ohio, Virginia, he was leading by similar margins. Looking down the whole list of eight or nine or ten battleground states, the president is ahead in all but one. So, Romney needs a shift in sentiment. He needs it nationally but he particularly needs it in these key states. He needs to refocus voters' attention.

SIMON: Is this a time to remind ourselves that the race is for 270 electoral votes and not to win the popular vote?

ELVING: That is correct. It's increasingly difficult to see how Mitt Romney gets to 270 Electoral College votes without winning Florida and Ohio.

SIMON: Ron Elving, NPR senior Washington editor. Thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.