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Obama, Romney court key battlegrounds

DELRAY BEACH, Fla. — President Barack Obama on Tuesday followed up on the last presidential debate by accusing his Republican challenger Mitt Romney of shifting his positions, as the two candidates entered the two-week home stretch before Election Day.

The two are neck-and-neck in the race for the White House, and Romney presented a more centrist approach to foreign policy during the Monday night debate — the last of three, and this one on foreign policy. The Republican’s performance, however, gave the Obama campaign more ammunition to allege that Romney is willing to shift from or lose his more conservative positions to satisfy his more mainstream constituents.

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

Obama’s campaign released a 20-page booklet called the “Blueprint for America’s Future” on Tuesday to promote a second-term agenda, responding to Republican criticism that the president has not clearly articulated a plan for the next four years.

Neither side can claim the lead at this late stage of the race, with polls showing the race virtually tied nationally and in some of the key swing states. Obama’s challenge is to convince voters who may be hurting financially that he is better qualified to lead the country back to economic prosperity than Romney, who made a fortune as a successful businessman.

Obama was campaigning in Florida, one of nine battleground states that do not reliably vote for one party or the other, and that therefore will decide the election. He was joining Vice-President Joe Biden in another such state, Ohio, later Tuesday. The U.S. president is not chosen according to the popular nationwide vote but in state-by-state contests. The system makes it possible for a candidate to win the popular vote but lose the election, as happened to former Vice-President Al Gore 2000.

Romney and running mate Paul Ryan’s schedule reflected the strategy of driving up Republican vote totals in areas such as the Denver suburbs and Cincinnati, Ohio. They start their two-week dash in Nevada, before moving to the Denver area for a rally with rocker-rapper Kid Rock and country music’s Rodney Atkins.

During Monday night’s debate, Romney largely expressed agreement with how Obama has conducted U.S. foreign policy. His stance reflected his determination not to cause further unease among war-weary Americans who are overwhelmingly in favour of ending the Afghan war. On the violence in Syria, for example, Romney said he would not get the United States involved militarily, even though he wants to find a way to arm the opposition.

To that end, he dramatically shifted his position and agreed with the president that all U.S. forces should be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Romney previously had criticized Obama for setting such a date for withdrawal, saying he was giving the Taliban insurgency and its al-Qaida allies a date after which the militants could begin a drive to retake the country. Romney also dropped the conditions he had set for troop withdrawal.

Romney even congratulated Obama “on taking out Osama bin Laden and taking on the leadership of al-Qaida,” but he added, “We can’t kill our way out of this mess. ... We must have a comprehensive and robust strategy.” He did not offer specifics.

Romney also left behind his criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of explanations about what happened in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which the U.S. ambassador and three others protecting him were killed.

The most divisive issue in Monday’s debate was how to deal with Iran’s alleged drive to build a nuclear weapon. And even in that case, Romney said he approved of Obama’s use of international sanctions that have caused severe economic shock to the Iranian economy. Obama said that left Romney able only to repeat administration policy, but “more loudly.” Both men stood by their vows to use the military, if necessary, to prevent Iran from joining the club of nuclear-armed countries.

Both candidates underscored their support for Israel against a threat from Iran. “If Israel is attacked, we have their back,” said Romney — moments after Obama vowed, “I will stand with Israel if Israel is attacked.”

Notably, neither candidate mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the European debt crisis or climate change.

Most Americans, however, are focused not on world affairs but on the struggling U.S. economy. Obama and Romney will spend the last two weeks before the Nov. 6 election appealing to the tiny slice of still-undecided voters in a race where polls show the electorate evenly split.



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