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Courting center risky for Romney

Mitt Romney makes a point during the third debate with President Barack Obama in Boca Raton, Fla., on Monday. (Associated Press)
Mitt Romney makes a point during the third debate with President Barack Obama in Boca Raton, Fla., on Monday. (Associated Press)
Bradley Klapper And Kasie Hunt Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Mitt Romney abruptly moderated his foreign policy positions in this week’s debate on issues like ending the war in Afghanistan and averting another conflict in Iran, hoping to neutralize one of President Barack Obama’s main strengths with the election only two weeks away. But the move toward the political center comes with potential pitfalls.

By abandoning several of his sharpest criticisms of Obama from the past several months, Romney risks upsetting some conservatives and reinforcing the allegation – levied repeatedly by the president on Monday night – that his positions lack conviction and leadership.

His aim was to appear sober and serious, a plausible commander in chief, by not engaging in saber-rattling for political points. By narrowing the gap between his positions and those of Obama, he also may have succeeded in giving undecided voters, particularly women, the impression that he would lead a war-weary America into another conflict only reluctantly.

Romney aides said both the tone and substance of their boss’s arguments were intentional and that he carried with him into the debate a key piece of advice: Talk about peace.

The overarching goal, they said, was for Romney to look like a suitable commander. After adopting a more assertively militaristic tone to win the GOP nomination amid challenges from more conservative candidates, he sought at all costs to avoid appearing as a warmonger.

“I want to see peace,” Romney said in his closing statement.

The shifts in the debate were stark for a candidate who only last week described Obama’s foreign policy as “unraveling before our very eyes.”

Unconditionally endorsing Obama’s 2014 deadline for removing U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan, Romney reversed his opposition to what he had termed a “political” timetable that wasn’t necessarily supported by U.S. generals on the ground. And he declared the president’s troop surge in Afghanistan a success, after previously accusing Obama of removing too many troops too quickly.

On Iran, Romney stressed that efforts to dissuade the Islamic Republic from developing a nuclear weapon should be “through peaceful and diplomatic means.” That came after spending the past year-and-a-half lambasting Obama for failing to levy a credible military threat against Iran and spending too much time trying to rein in Israel’s hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Monday night, Romney said Obama’s sanctions on Iran were working, calling war a last resort: “It is something one would only consider if all of the other avenues had been tried to their full extent.”

And on Syria, Romney modified the argument for deeper involvement he had presented in a foreign policy address earlier this month in Virginia. He argued at that time for a concerted, U.S.-led approach to ensure that Syrian rebels obtain the weapons to defeat the Assad government’s “tanks, helicopters and fighter jets.” On Monday he adopted Obama’s caution by emphasizing the need to ensure arms don’t reach “the wrong hands” and stating unequivocally that he wouldn’t pursue U.S. military involvement in the conflict.

He expressed his support “entirely” for the administration’s escalated drone campaign against terrorist suspects overseas and said the president acted rightly in urging Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak to leave power despite three decades of close partnership with the United States.

Obama seized on Romney’s shift, rather than his new agreeability.

“We are accustomed to seeing politicians change their position from four years ago,” Obama told a Florida rally Tuesday. “We are not accustomed to seeing politicians change their positions from four days ago.”

The new focus reflected Romney pitching his case to a changed audience. Having largely satisfied the Republican base over several grueling months of primary campaigning, Romney is now making a last-ditch appeal to women, independents and America’s remaining undecided voters as the Nov. 6 election nears. National polls show the president and the challenger running neck and neck, with battleground states such as Ohio, Virginia and Florida – the scene of Monday’s debate – perhaps proving pivotal.

Romney’s move toward the center on foreign policy follows a similar shift he has tried on domestic issues. In recent weeks, he’s softened his rhetoric on immigration, emphasized the importance of regulating Wall Street banks, and used a TV ad to emphasize his support for abortion rights in instances of rape and incest and if the mother’s health is threatened, all risky positions in a GOP primary battle.

While Romney continues to criticize Obama for military spending cuts, for his decision not to visit Israel as president, and for failing to challenge Chinese currency manipulation and intellectual property theft, talking up peace was a new wrinkle designed in part to broaden his appeal particularly to women.

During debate preparation, Romney’s advisers looked to the first encounter between Ronald Reagan and President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Answering his first question in that debate, Reagan said: “Our first priority must be world peace, and that use of force is always and only a last resort, when everything else has failed.”

Aides also urged Romney to follow Reagan in projecting optimism.

“I’m optimistic about our future,” Romney said in his closing statement.

The strategy surprised some conservatives. Republican commentators lamented his failure to challenge Obama on the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

Libya seemed teed-up for Romney after weeks when he and other Republicans had hammered the administration for possible intelligence and security failures and a shifting message on how it happened.

Asked about the attack with the first question of the debate, Romney instead chose to focus on the larger challenges facing a Middle East in the throes of democratic transition and the continued threat posed by al-Qaida and Islamist extremism. After Obama parried by saying he was investigating the attack and going after the perpetrators, one of Romney’s most obvious lines of attack was effectively eliminated from the discussion.

A Romney aide said the Libya issue was already clarified.

“The governor’s made clear in many different forums and interviews that he believes that there are more questions than answers at this point,” senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said. “He’s covered that ground.”

Aides said the candidate wanted to avoid any traps in territory that he was less familiar with, perhaps explaining the Republican’s comfort in allowing the conversation to veer toward education, automobiles, job creation plans and other economic questions.

On many of these issues, Romney has outscored Obama in national polls. On foreign policy, the president has held an advantage. And Romney has struggled to establish his national security credentials after a problematic summer tour overseas that saw him offend his British hosts by questioning their security preparations for the Olympic Games and raise hackles among Palestinians who accused him of racism when he said culture was part of the reason Israelis were more economically successful than they.

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