■ An ability to reach common ground with adversaries that lead to a safer world. The arms control treaty Obama negotiated — and Kerry helped ratify — with Russia to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons will be a key example.
“The public pretty much is with him on most of these issues,’’ said Colin Kahl, a former Pentagon official now advising the Obama campaign. “It is a disconcerting position for the Republicans to be in. They don’t have a natural edge this time around.”
Romney has been critical of Obama but has not provided many details on how he would handle such issues as Afghanistan. Instead he has made some statements considered by both Democratic and some Republican foreign policy hands as unnecessarily threatening.
William S. Cohen, a former Republican senator from Maine who served as secretary of defense for President Clinton, singled out two recent Romney statements — that Russia is America’s greatest foe, and that China is manipulating its currency — as unnecessarily confrontational given the United States has to work closely with both on a host of crises, including Iran’s nuclear program and the emerging civil war in Syria.
“You can toughen it up but do in a way that doesn’t put you in a box,” he advised.
Others point out that Romney has expressed stridently hawkish views on issues such as Iran — suggesting that he might back air strikes on nuclear facilities there — and on the Middle East, contending in his acceptance speech that Obama has “thrown Israel under the bus.” That assertion was rebutted publicly by Israel’s prime minister and defense minister.
Such aggressive stances have trained greater attention on Romney’s advisers.
“Neither Mitt Romney nor Paul Ryan are foreign policy guys. As a result they are more reliant on who is advising them” said Kahl. “It is kind of the neoconservative all-star team.”
“They supported some of the worst decisions in American history,’’ Kerry said. “They left our relationships in tatters. On Iran, there was no focus, no sanctions. They took their eye off the ball in Afghanistan. President Bush said ‘I don’t worry about where Osama bin Laden is.’ ”
Some political observers, however, question the effectiveness of the Democrats’ strategy.
“Obama is advantaged here and he should talk about that — but he should also understand that this advantage is unlikely to sway very many voters who are undecided at this point because the issues are simply not that salient to voters,” said Lynn Vavreck, coauthor of the forthcoming book “The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election’’ and a professor at the University of California Los Angeles. “He’d be better off talking about the growth in the economy — even though it is slow.”
Others say questions about a candidate’s advisers are valid.
“Who will he turn to?” Cohen asked. “Will it be John Bolton or Richard Hass?” the former adviser to both presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush who represents the pragmatic wing of the GOP foreign policy establishment.
“It is fair to ask, ‘who is your team?’ ”
Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com