NEW YORK, N.Y. - Republican Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama politely swapped criticism on foreign policy in dueling speeches that showcased their best campaign behaviour while world leaders gathered in New York City for the U.N. General Assembly meeting.
The two presidential candidates gave nearly back-to-back addresses at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, founded by former President Bill Clinton, on a day when foreign policy issues again pushed the country's economic concerns out of the spotlight.
Romney subtly criticized Obama, without mentioning his name, in a speech that promised to tie overseas aid to work and free enterprise. Obama focused on speaking out against human trafficking, "which must be called by its true name, modern slavery."
Obama also addressed world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly in a visit that was to include none of the usual private meetings with key U.S. allies. The president was expected to hurry back to campaigning for the less than 10 per cent of voters who say they have yet to make up their minds for the November election. New polling Tuesday suggested Obama widening a lead over Romney, but the race remains tight.
In his speech, Romney again pushed for a stronger U.S. stance on recent anti-American protests in Muslim countries over an amateur anti-Islam film made in the U.S. Among those killed was the U.S. ambassador to Libya. He also spoke out for a stronger stance on the civil war in Syria and on Iran's suspected nuclear program.
"We feel that we are at the mercy of events, rather than shaping events," he said.
Although Romney did not overtly criticize Obama's foreign policy in the speech, his words took on a sharper edge when he suggested to CNN during an interview that the White House had misled the American people by not characterizing the violence in Libya as a terrorist attack.
"The White House's failure to acknowledge that the assassination of our ambassador was a terrorist attack, a terrorist event, suggests that they are trying to paper over the seriousness of what's happening in the Middle East," Romney said.
In his New York Speech, Romney also said the United States must use foreign aid to bring about lasting change in Libya and elsewhere, but he added that foreign aid cannot sustain a developing country on a permanent basis and U.S. policies should promote work, not reliance.
"Work builds self-esteem. It transforms minds from fantasy and fanaticism to reality and grounding," Romney said. "Work will not long tolerate corruption nor quietly endure the brazen theft by government of the product of hard-working men and women."
Obama addressed the Clinton forum at midday after his speech at the U.N., where he called on world leaders to join in confronting the root causes of the rage across the Muslim world.
Romney softened his sharp criticism of Obama at recent campaign rallies and instead laid out a vision for how a Romney administration would lead, including by renegotiating trade agreements and offering "prosperity pacts" to countries to encourage open markets in exchange for U.S. aid.
Clinton gave Romney a warm introduction, which led Romney to jokingly acknowledge that the former president is helping his rival.
"If there's one thing we've learned this election season, it's that a few words from Bill Clinton can do a man a lot of good," Romney said. "All I've got to do now is wait a couple days for that bounce to happen."
A few weeks ago, Clinton offered a forceful defence of Obama's economic record and plans for the future at the Democratic National Convention.
New polling in key battleground states indicated that Obama may be experiencing a bounce since the convention. Washington Post polls out Tuesday showed Obama leading Romney in Ohio, 52 to 44 per cent, among likely voters. The president also had a slight edge in Florida, 51 to 47 per cent.
Both states are crucial battlegrounds because historically, their voters have been neither reliably Republican nor Democratic. The U.S. president is chosen not by national popular vote but in state-by-state contests.
In more encouraging news for Obama, a new survey of consumer confidence rose Tuesday to the highest level since February on expectations that hiring will soon pick up. The jump surprised many economists because the most recent hiring and retail sales figures have been sluggish.
The increased confidence could help explain recent polls that show Obama with a widening lead over Romney in states like Ohio and Florida.
Mark Vitner, a senior economist at Wells Fargo, suggests that Clinton might have helped boost confidence with his rousing speech on Obama's behalf at the Democratic National Convention in early September. The Conference Board's consumer confidence survey was conducted Sept. 1-13.
Clinton "rekindled memories of better economic times" and assured voters that the U.S. economy was on the right track, Vitner said.
Associated Press writers Kasie Hunt, Ben Feller and Anne D'Innocenzio in New York and David Espo, Philip Elliott, Christopher S. Rugaber, Nedra Pickler and Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington contributed to this report.
- Politics & Government
- President Barack Obama
- Bill Clinton