From the killing of an ambassador to precipitous new brinkmanship in Asia and friction between U.S. and Israeli leaders over Iran, the past month has many asking whether the presidential election has suddenly entered a home stretch in which national security and foreign policy play as big a role as the economy.
Indeed, both President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney used interviews that aired Sunday on "60 Minutes" to hit their rival on foreign policy.
However, political analysts on both sides of the aisle wonder more about whether Mr. Romney is capable of capitalizing on an issue that, until recently, looked like a strength for the Obama administration.
Based on the lackluster enthusiasm Mr. Romney's trip to Europe inspired last month and the more recent blowback from his criticism of Mr. Obama's posture on Muslim anger sweeping the Middle East, it is not yet clear that he can.
"I think in large part because Mitt Romney fumbled it badly — and even members of his own party who were criticizing him and his early statements just hours after our diplomats were killed — demonstrated his continued weakness on foreign policy relative to President Obama," says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress think tank.
"Romney did not project an aura of calm and certitude," Mr. Katulis said. "He did not look like a leader. He looked like he was auditioning to be a Fox News commentator and not running for president of the United States."
But Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, counters that, regardless of Mr. Romney's response, the events in the Middle East conjure images of the last Democratic president to lose a re-election bid.
"It's frustrating that Romney keeps shooting himself in the foot," he said. "But the fact of the matter is that Obama's record now gives Romney a chance to reach the end zone. The events in the Middle East don't make Obama look strong. They make him look like Jimmy Carter with Alzheimer's.
"The campaign so far reminds me of an Ivy League football game," Mr. Rubin quipped. "The fact is, one team's going to fumble 10 times and the other is going to fumble 11. But eventually, someone's going to come out on top."
Mr. Obama's soft-toned rhetoric and apologetic posture toward the Muslim world opened a unique opportunity for Mr. Romney. "Obama looks like a poodle being confronted by a Doberman pinscher of radical Islamists," Mr. Rubin said. "He doesn't come off as having been successful.
"There comes a time when he's got to stop apologizing and stand up for principle," he added. "If he doesn't, Romney can run away with the game."
Mr. Rubin's words were echoed by the Republican candidate himself in the "60 Minutes" interview.
Mr. Romney chided the president's failure to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the U.N. as "a mistake" and said it "sends a message throughout the Middle East that somehow we distance ourselves from our friends."
"The exact opposite approach is what's necessary," he said.
For his part, Mr. Obama used his "60 Minutes" interview to brush off Mr. Romney's criticisms by saying the Republican has been vague about what he would do differently vis-a-vis Iran and Syria.
"If Gov. Romney is suggesting that we should start another war, he should say so," he said.
According to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Mr. Obama's approval rating on foreign policy took a measurable hit during the recent protests that saw American flags desecrated and U.S. embassies stormed in several Middle Eastern cities.
The poll, conducted between Sept. 12 and 16 — at the height of the American news media's coverage of the protests — found 49 percent approval of the president's performance of foreign affairs and 46 percent disapproval. Compared with a month earlier, the new numbers showed a 5 percent drop in approval and 6 percent jump in disapproval.
The coming weeks will show the possible impact on specific voting blocs, such as Jewish voters in Florida. Mr. Obama enjoyed a 69 percent to 25 percent lead among such voters in an American Jewish Committee survey just before the riots purportedly in response to a film made in the U.S. that denigrates Muhammad, Islam's prophet.
While the latest Gallup polling data shows Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney running neck-and-neck with about 47 percent support each among all registered voters, the latest Rasmussen Reports data shows Mr. Obama with a 1-point lead across swing states.
Foreign policy and national security will likely get pushed from the spotlight by the first debate, on Oct. 3, which is slated to focus exclusively on domestic issues. But debates later in the month will focus on foreign policy.
The foreign policy and national security advantage that the Obama administration built — killing Osama bin Laden, untangling the U.S. from Iraq and maintaining a ubiquitous drone war against al Qaeda — is not one to which Democrats are accustomed.
"Obama put the Democrats back on top politically in foreign policy for the first time since the end of the Roosevelt administration and the beginning of Truman," says Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus and board senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Liberals and many centrists might agree. But, says Mr. Gelb, while the Obama administration hasn't made any truly costly foreign-policy mistakes, it ultimately has "no strategy, in general or in particular."
The Republicans, he said, "have to look for new wedge issues, and they can't let Obama walk away with the foreign-policy prize without being challenged."
The catch, said Mr. Gelb, is that Mr. Romney's campaign-trail jabs on foreign policy fall short of a truly deep and sustainable attack.
Mr. Romney has made headlines by "holding onto slogans" with rhetorical claims like "China is a currency manipulator" or "Russia is our biggest foe," Mr. Gelb said. "That stuff doesn't stick."
The Romney camp, Mr. Gelb said, "would do better to go back to the real source of strength of Republicans on foreign policy, which is realism, real good hard-headed realism."
"If Romney wanted to do this fairly and not based on trumped-up charges, he could talk about what's going on in Asia with China and raise questions about what the president is doing there," Mr. Gelb added. "But then he's got to say what the president should do.
"But even then," he said, "even if he did that, I don't think it would have much effect on the public opinion polls.
"We have no evidence that foreign policy has risen higher on the political voting chart now than before," Mr. Gelb said. "I don't know what will happen if the Romney-ites keep banging away at it. There may be some effect, but it isn't going to be large or one of the major issues."
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