WASHINGTON - Republican Mitt Romney, flashing new confidence on the campaign trail as polls showed him gaining ground in a tight race, assailed President Barack Obama's leadership in the Middle East and declared the U.S. must join other nations in helping arm Syrian rebels.
Hoping to bolster his own foreign policy credentials, Romney said he would identify and organize those in the Syrian opposition who share American values, then work with American allies to "ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad's tanks, helicopters and fighter jets."
His wide-ranging address at the Virginia Military Institute on Monday attempted to establish an image of Romney as a man who would be a strong commander in chief, an area where Obama has long held an advantage, as the president who oversaw the demise of Osama bin Laden and the winding down of two unpopular wars.
One month from Election Day, polls show a close race. And with millions of Americans already casting ballots in early voting, the candidates have little room for error as they seek to sway a narrow swath of undecided voters.
Following Romney's strong performance in the first presidential debate last week, both Democrats and Republicans say internal campaign surveys show the Republican has cut into the lead Obama had built up in many key battleground states. But they say Obama still has an advantage in most of the nine or so critical states, including Ohio and Virginia. A lack of independent polling makes it difficult to know whether that's true. Romney pulled ahead of Obama, 49 to 45 per cent nationally, among likely voters according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted after the debate.
The U.S. president is chosen not by national popular vote but in state-by-state contests, making fierce battlegrounds out of a handful of states where voters are neither reliably Democratic nor Republican.
"Things are going pretty good," the usually cautious Romney said Monday with a smile.
In his foreign policy speech, Romney emphasized a different course on Syria, casting the civil war there as a proxy conflict with Iran and saying it's in America's interest to court an opposition likely to play a key role in leading a future Syria.
"It is essential that we develop influence with those forces in Syria that will one day lead a country that sits at the heart of the Middle East," Romney said.
Obama's administration still seeks a peaceful political transition, even though the president acknowledged in August that the likelihood of a soft landing for the conflict "seems pretty distant."
Romney aides said he wasn't calling for the U.S. to directly arm the rebels.
Nor has Obama. The president's re-election campaign dismissed Romney's remarks as "saber-rattling" and accused the Republican of refusing to outline just how his policies would differ from the incumbent's.
The administration has been quietly co-ordinating with partners in the region who want to provide military assistance. But Obama has opposed directly providing weapons to the rebels or using U.S. air power to prevent Syrian jets from flying.
Obama aides acknowledge Romney's strong turn on the debate stage helped him shift gears from a rocky September. But they also argue that Romney's momentum was arrested somewhat by a Friday jobs report showing the unemployment rate declined to 7.8 per cent, the lowest level of Obama's presidency. For voters, the economy is by far the most important issue in this election cycle.
Democrats say the president was thrown during the debate by what they call Romney's willingness to abandon his previous positions, including his $5 trillion tax cut proposal. In the next debate — and in television advertisements before then — the Democrat and his aides are expected to accuse Romney of lying about his own plans.
As the president's aides worked to poke holes in Romney's foreign policy address, Obama made a cross-country swing for cash and Hispanic votes Monday. He declared a national monument at the Keene, California, home of Latino labour leader Cesar Chavez, the United Farmworkers Union founder who died in 1993.
Obama's campaign is banking on a massive get-out-the-vote operation and state-by-state shades of economic improvement to maintain its apparent polling edge in swing states from Ohio to Virginia.
The president has more get-out-the-vote offices than Romney in every competitive state; some offices never closed after the 2008 campaign.
There are more registered Democrats than Republicans in nearly every competitive state with party registration, including Florida and Nevada. Democrats appear to have an edge among early voters in Iowa and Ohio.
Romney's team is working hard to chip away at that margin. Romney's early voting efforts are showing signs of paying off in North Carolina and Florida, two competitive states that the Republican nominee can ill afford to lose.
Associated Press writers Stephen Ohlemacher, Steve Peoples, Ben Feller, Ken Thomas, Nedra Pickler and Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace in Washington and Kasie Hunt and Steve Peoples in Lexington, Virginia, contributed to this story.