WASHINGTON — With just 53 days remaining until Election Day, the unfolding situation in Libya, where four Americans were killed Tuesday, and elsewhere in the region almost ensures that foreign affairs will be more than a footnote in the final weeks of a close election.
Competing on foreign policy terrain could make Mitt Romney’s road to the White House more challenging. Nearly every aspect of Romney’s campaign has been geared toward the sluggish economy, and Thursday — seeking to quell bipartisan criticism about his initial response to the attacks — he sought to shift the conversation back there. But he still criticized President Obama indirectly for not being more aggressive on the international stage.
“As we watch the world today, sometimes it seems that we are at the mercy of events instead of shaping events,” Romney said during a rally in Fairfax, Va. “The world needs American leadership. The Middle East needs American leadership.”
The irony is that Obama — who faced so much criticism four years ago that he was a foreign policy novice that he picked the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations as his running mate — is now the one positioned to benefit from the prominence of foreign policy.
A new Gallup poll published Thursday showed that Americans trust Democrats to protect them from international terrorism as strongly as they trust Republicans, the first time in five years that the GOP has not led on the issue.
The survey showed the nation’s two major parties tied on this issue at 45 percent. Only a year ago, Republicans led, 49 percent to 38 percent.
The poll included 1,017 adults and was conducted between Sept. 6 and 9, the end of a two-week stretch that included both parties’ national conventions but preceded the recent violence in the Mideast.
Other polls often show that voters trust Romney more on the economy, while they trust Obama more on issues of national security.
Foreign affairs are not often a dominant issue in presidential races. The Iranian hostage crisis became a major flashpoint in the 1980 election, with President Jimmy Carter struggling to explain both a down domestic economy and the extended hostage situation abroad. The Vietnam War was a major issue in 1968 and 1972, and Senator John Kerry made the Iraq war a prominent theme of his 2004 campaign.
But the 2012 campaign was marked by how little international affairs were being discussed on the campaign trail.
“Foreign policy and national security has always been the wild card in this election,” said Peter Feaver, a professor at Duke University who was on President George W. Bush’s national security team. “It’s still going to be the economy first. But it’s not going to be the economy only.”
There is also the risk of missteps for Obama. His statement Thursday that Egypt was not an ally caused administration officials to later clarify that Obama was not downgrading relations with the Arab nation. And events could still put him on the defensive.
The liberation of Libya, for example, was a major accomplishment on Obama’s watch. But there will be fresh questions in the coming days about why the Egyptian embassy and Libyan consulate were not better protected from the attacks there this week, and why the White House did not do more to prevent the unrest from growing out of control.
Obama also faces the rebellion in Syria and growing concern among Israeli leaders over Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. In raw political terms, the flare-ups in the Middle East can give him an opportunity to calm the nation and remind voters that he is the current commander in chief.
‘‘I know that it’s difficult sometimes seeing these disturbing images on television because our world is filled with serious challenges,’’ Obama said during a campaign event Thursday in Golden, Colo. ‘‘It is a tumultuous time that we’re in. But we can and we will meet those challenges if we stay true to who we are, and if we would remind ourselves that we’re different from other nations.’’
Romney has little experience overseas and has never placed much of an emphasis on global issues. When he accepted the presidential nomination in Tampa, he mentioned the economy several times but never once brought up Afghanistan or the war. In his standard stump speech, his mentions of other countries are usually in an economic context. He does not want the United States to “become like Europe,” he says, referring to the debt crisis that has gripped the European Union. He pillories China for its currency policies, which he argues negatively impact US trade and therefore add to the burden of American businesses.
Many of Romney’s biggest missteps have been on foreign issues. He declared in March that Russia was “without question our number one geopolitical foe,” a comment that struck many as off base in a post-9/11 world.
A foreign trip to England, Israel, and Poland was punctuated by his questioning whether England was ready to host the Olympic Games, and he outraged Palestinians by suggesting their culture was what made their economy inferior to Israel’s. His one moment of success — an endorsement by Poland’s former president Lech Walesa — was overshadowed when a press aide cursed at reporters for shouting questions at Romney as he left a holy site.
Among Romney’s foreign policy advisers are Mitchell Reiss, a former diplomat and president of Washington College in Chestertown, Md.; Richard Williamson, who has served in senior foreign policy positions for the past three Republican presidents; and Jim Talent, a former Missouri senator.
Romney is also closely guided by Dan Senor, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who was the chief spokesman for the coalition forces during the Iraq war.
On Tuesday — the 11th anniversary of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 — Romney publicly faulted Obama for a statement issued by the US Embassy in Cairo — a statement Romney called “akin to an apology” to the attackers. It later became clear that the statement was actually issued before the attacks, in response to a film offensive to Muslims.
While the timing and the tone of Romney’s comments struck many as too heavyhanded, they did illustrate a deeper difference that Romney has long had with Obama: his belief that Obama is too weak on the world stage.