Advisers to Mitt Romney are split over how broadly and aggressively to attack President Barack Obama for his handling of foreign policy following the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, according to top Republicans close to the campaign.
Some aides are arguing that the campaign has been given a huge gift: a new opening to argue White House failure and incompetence. "Across the board - domestic, economic and foreign-policy issues - President Obama has been outmatched by events," said a Romney adviser advocating an aggressive response to the chaos in the Middle East. "He's an observer of events, not a shaper of events. Everywhere you look, he's been outmatched."
And indeed, POLITICO has learned that Romney now plans a major speech on foreign policy at some point after Wednesday's debate, probably next week. The speech will focus on "a failed foreign policy and how we arrived at this moment, where people are storming our embassies, [and] the Iranians are storming ahead with their nuclear program," said a senior Republican close to the campaign.
"You can start to go around the world and look at all the crises, and our deteriorating relations with certain countries," the Republican added.
But the campaign is sticking with its day-to-day message on the economy -- a view promoted internally by Stuart Stevens, the chief strategist, who is among those arguing that issue is what voters will use to judge whether Obama deserves a second term. "As messy as the world looks, it's not voters' primary concern," a top aide said. "And if we're not talking about their primary concern, we're not winning."
The truth is Romney now finds himself besieged with conflicting advice, internally and externally: Attack Obama harder. Offer a detailed agenda. Pivot to foreign policy. Pivot back to the economy.
Romney's response: Ignore it and stick to the game plan, which does not include any serious, sustained detour into foreign policy. His internal polls show the same thing as Obama's: Voters just don't care much about foreign policy in this election. This is the reason Obama was so quick to drop his attack on Romney for not mentioning the troops or Afghanistan in his convention speech. Voters didn't seem to care.
This is basically the Stuart Stevens doctrine. And regardless of the passionate arguments of some other aides, including several outside foreign-policy advisers, the boss is going with Stevens on this until further notice.
That doesn't mean they won't talk foreign policy at all. Romney's running mate Paul Ryan previewed the campaign's argument on "Fox News Sunday," telling Chris Wallace: "We're seeing the ugly fruits of the Obama foreign policy unravel around the world on our TV screens. Syria -- you've got 20,000 dead people. Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon. The Middle East peace process is in shambles, and we have our flags being burned all around the world. Russia is thwarting us at every stage in the process. This is a weak foreign policy with terrible results, which makes us less safe."
For now, Romney and Ryan plan to avoid discussing the Libya attack as an isolated issue, but instead plan to use the issue "to kick-start a broader conversation about the failure of Obama's foreign policy, around the region and in many parts of the world," a Romney aide said.
Romney and Ryan will answer questions about Libya when asked in interviews, but plan to say very little for now about the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in what the administration is now calling a "terrorist" attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Instead, the Republican ticket will leave calls for an investigation to Capitol Hill, where both Republicans and Democrats have complained about the briefings they have received. "Let Congress do it: It's a bipartisan thing, and that's a better place for us to be," a Romney adviser said.
The killings in Libya represent a serious threat to Obama's credibility and his argument of cool competence in battling terrorism over the past three-plus years. Obama and his aides, after initially blaming an anti-Muslim film produced in the United States for inciting the violence, has gradually conceded it was the result of organized and premeditated terrorism.
The administration took a beating in the press for three straight days over the weekend, starting with a scathing Wall Street Journal editorial on Friday, continuing with a Page One story in Saturday's New York Times looking at the political fallout of Obama's shifting explanations and punctuated by a Page One story in Sunday's Washington Post saying the U.S. had weak security at the consulate in Benghazi, despite a recent string of attacks in eastern Libya, "some linked to fundamentalist groups," which had made it clear that "Westerners were no longer safe."
The Romney advisers who want to exploit the Libya issue call it an opportunity to go all-in on the foreign policy failures as a stand-in for overall failure of the president. "If you're running a campaign and you're failing, then you've got to try to change the subject to something that will help you succeed," one of these advisers said.
The campaign's internal polls of key states show a broad hardening of support for Obama and softening support for Romney. And the campaign expects forthcoming public polls from Ohio, Virginia and Nevada will be terrible for Romney.
A top adviser said: "The only thing that would make the foreign policy failures and the intelligence failures - and the fundamental failure of their whole approach to the Middle East -- a front and center issue is if Romney pivoted his campaign and decided to go right at that, essentially to run a Ronald Reagan 'Jimmy Carter is losing the Cold War competition to the Soviet Union' kind of campaign."
But Stevens and other top officials at Romney headquarters in Boston have rejected that approach for now. "They'll tell you that you've got to focus people on the fact that their economic prospects are not very good and all that," the top adviser said. "Well, Romney's been trying to do that now since he clinched the nomination at the end of April -- and he's failed. The president is better at deflecting attention from the bad news than Romney is at driving home the impact of the bad news on individual voters."
Campaign officials are also cautious after being burned by a statement shortly after the ambassador's death that attacked Obama and wound up backfiring on Romney.
Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour made the Stevens argument Sunday on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," saying that Romney should not steer the campaign to foreign policy for the final five weeks. "The American people are focused on the lack of jobs, the loss of income, the poor prospects," Barbour said. "They're much more concerned about that than they are about foreign policy."
The top adviser lamented: "This is going to be one of these things that you and others who write the books are going to talk about. Was this an opportunity to go after the president on failure, and try and get people to focus on the president's policy failure? And everybody will say, 'Well, it was the fateful decision. They decided not to do it.' "
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