BURLINGTON, Mass. - Amid violent flare-ups in the Middle East, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is trying to prove his own readiness to be commander in chief and force President Barack Obama to answer for turmoil in places like Libya, where terrorists killed the U.S. ambassador on the anniversary of 9/11.
Romney advisers argue that the stepped-up foreign policy criticism dovetails with a key piece of his central argument: Obama is in over his head, and the country will be worse off if he gets a second term.
Yet, there's a disconnect between what Romney and his team are talking about nationally and what he is running on in the states, where his TV advertising is largely focused on the economy and jobs - voters' No. 1 issue - ahead of Wednesday's presidential debate. All that's leaving Romney open to criticism that his campaign is searching for a winning pitch just one month before the election and with voting under way in many states.
"Our country seems to be at the mercy of events rather than shaping them. We're not moving them in a direction that protects our people or our allies. And that's dangerous," Romney wrote in a column published Monday in the Wall Street Journal.
Romney running mate Paul Ryan piled on, telling radio host Laura Ingraham that Obama's administration hasn't given the public the full story on the circumstances that led to the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi.
"It's really indicative of a broader failure of this administration's foreign policy and the crisis that is taking place across the Middle East," Ryan said. "It is clear the administration's policy unraveled."
The Obama campaign reacted dismissively, noting that Osama bin Laden is dead and arguing that the Obama administration has taken a hard line on Iran to dissuade it from creating a nuclear weapon.
"I don't think the American people are looking for chest thumping and empty rhetoric, and that's really what we're hearing from the Romney-Ryan team," campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on MSNBC. She said Romney's opinion piece lacks "a real vision for leading the country as commander in chief."
Romney's intense focus on foreign policy is intended to undercut what the Obama campaign has seen as the president's ironclad international affairs credentials - and send a message to voters that they can trust the Republican on foreign policy despite limited experience. To that end, Romney's advisers said he's planning a major foreign policy speech, to be delivered some time after Wednesday's debate.
Foreign policy is the latest in a series of political openings that Romney has tried to exploit in recent weeks as he has fallen behind the president in polls in key battleground states. National surveys show the president ahead in a tight contest. In recent weeks, Romney also has castigated Obama on the coal industry, defense cuts, wealth redistribution and the president's comment that it's not possible to change Washington from the inside.
But unlike some of those issues, Romney's campaign hasn't put serious money behind the foreign policy line of criticism.