WASHINGTON (AP) — Looking to win voters even as they swore off negative attacks, the presidential candidates clashed over whether the country is a safer place on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
President Barack Obama pointed to gains in the war on terror under his time as commander in chief to make the case that Americans are better protected. "Al-Qaida's leadership has been devastated and Osama bin Laden will never threaten us again. Our country is safer and our people are resilient," the president said at a Pentagon memorial service.
But Republican nominee Mitt Romney disagreed in a speech to the National Guard convention in Reno, Nev. While he won applause for thanking the Navy SEALs who killed bin Laden — without mentioning Obama — he added: "I wish I could say the world is less dangerous now."
Obama and Romney pulled their negative ads and avoided appearing at campaign rallies, but the politicking didn't stop. Obama did an interview with Miami radio DJ Laz on 106.7 FM without mentioning the somber anniversary. He discussed campaign issues and criticized Romney's position on taxes and education funding. The president's campaign also dispatched former President Bill Clinton to rally voters in Miami and first lady Michelle Obama encouraged supporters by email to commit to voting for her husband and recruiting others to do the same.
The day offered Romney a chance before the National Guard to address criticism that he didn't include a salute to the troops or reference the war in Afghanistan in his GOP convention speech last week.
"With less than two months to go before Election Day, I would normally speak to a gathering like this about the differences between my and my opponent's plans for our military and for our national security," Romney told thousands packed convention hall. "There is a time and a place for that, but this day is not it."
But Romney still delivered a political speech — criticizing defense cuts scheduled to take place early next year and suggesting an end to the war in Afghanistan lacks a clear mission, even though his strategy is similar to Obama's.
Obama's goal is to end all U.S. combat there by the end of 2014, while Romney says he wants to hand over security responsibility to the Afghans at a pace that does not risk the country's collapse and al-Qaida's return, without specifics about troop numbers.
"We can all agree that our men and women in the field deserve a clear mission, that they deserve the resources and resolute leadership they need to complete that mission, and that they deserve a country that will provide for their needs when they come home," Romney said.
The president and first lady observed the anniversary with moments of silence on the White House South Lawn and at the Pentagon, the target of one of the four planes hijacked by al-Qaida operatives. Afterward, Obama shook hands with the Pentagon crowd, including a man in a Romney hat who got his autograph.
The president then went to Arlington National Cemetery, where he visited the graves of recent war dead from Afghanistan and Iraq and placed presidential challenge coins in front of their headstones. He later planned to visit wounded soldiers and their families at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
At the time of the somber White House observance, Romney was shaking hands with firefighters at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, their yellow trucks forming a backdrop that recalled the sacrifice of first responders to the attacks. The Republican nominee then flew to Nevada to address the National Guard, whose members deployed as part of the military response.
Vice President Joe Biden attended a memorial service in his home state of Pennsylvania, where one of the hijacked airliners crashed in the fields of Shanksville. He told the families of the victims that "what they did for this country is still etched in the minds of not only you but millions of Americans forever."
Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, was in his home state Tuesday with no public events but behind the scenes finalized contracts with at least one Milwaukee television station to begin running ads asking voters to re-elect him to an eighth House term that he hopes to never serve. Wisconsin law allows Ryan to seek both offices simultaneously but only serve in one if he wins both. Ryan congressional ads start the same week Romney's commercials start in Wisconsin — a double-dip for the GOP ticket in a state that voted for Obama in 2008 but that they would like to put into play.
But negative ads were off the air Tuesday, following precedent for the anniversary. The 9/11 attack killed nearly 3,000 in the United States and was followed by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. At least 1,987 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan and 4,475 in Iraq, according to the Pentagon. At least 1,059 more coalition troops have also died in the Afghanistan war and 318 in Iraq, according to iCasualties.org, an independent organization.
Tracking civilian deaths is much more difficult. According to the U.N., 13,057 civilians were killed in the Afghan conflict between 2007, when the U.N. began keeping statistics, and the first half of 2012. Going back to the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, most estimates put the number of Afghan deaths in the war at more than 20,000. Estimates vary widely in Iraq, but most agree that at least 100,000 Iraqis were killed in war-related violence in the years between the invasion in 2003 and the U.S. withdrawal last December.
Polls show Obama leading Romney on terrorism and national security issues, but both are a low priority for voters in an election dominated by the economy. A CBS News/New York Times poll conducted in July found 37 percent of voters called terrorism and security extremely important to their vote, while 54 percent said the economy and jobs were that important.