Oct. 15 (Bloomberg) -- Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has narrowed the race against President Barack Obama by showing assertiveness on national security and taxes. Now those positions may be working against him.
Over the weekend, the father of Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya who was killed in the Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi, said that his son’s death shouldn’t be an issue in the campaign.
In a separate telephone interview yesterday, the late ambassador’s stepfather, Robert Commanday, echoed those sentiments. “We don’t think it should be politicized,” Commanday said. “We are not qualified any more than anyone else to form an opinion and we are going to leave it in the hands of the government.”
On domestic issues, the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation last week took a closer look at how much rates can be lowered by broadening the tax base -- as Romney has proposed -- and raised renewed skepticism about what his plan would achieve.
David Redlawsk, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, said as Romney gains traction in the race, he will also face more scrutiny.
“When it looks like you are going to lose, there is in a sense a lot less pressure,” Redlawsk said. “Once you are trending up, the attention changes.”
A Washington Post/ABC poll released today put Obama’s lead nationally over Romney at 49 percent to 46 percent, within the survey’s margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The poll of 923 likely voters was conducted Oct. 10-13.
The developments may influence how aggressive and specific Romney, 65, is in the next meeting with Obama, 51. They are set to hold their second debate at 9 p.m. tomorrow at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. It will be a town-hall format, which will allow audience questions on a full range of issues.
The debates are a good way to reach “tens of millions of people” at a time when Obama is encouraging supporters to vote early, Jen Psaki, his campaign spokeswoman, told reporters today.
The race is “very, very close,” Psaki said in Williamsburg, Virginia, where the president is preparing for the face-off.
Romney’s foreign policy stances -- most notably his criticism of the White House’s handling of the Libya attack -- drew new attention over the weekend after the ambassador’s father warned against politicizing the tragedy.
“It would really be abhorrent to make this into a campaign issue,” Jan Stevens, 77, said in an Oct. 13 telephone interview from his home in Loomis, California. He asked politicians to allow a formal investigation to conclude before laying blame.
While Stevens didn’t criticize Romney by name, Obama surrogates on talk shows seized on his comments to Bloomberg News.
Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod said on “Fox News Sunday” that Romney is “working hard to exploit this issue.”
Robert Gibbs, senior adviser to the Obama campaign, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program that Romney is “playing politics with this issue” and “we don’t need wing-tip cowboys.”
Romney campaign adviser Ed Gillespie said on Fox that it’s legitimate to ask questions because the administration’s story is “constantly shifting,” while Republican Ohio Senator Rob Portman said on ABC’s “This Week” program that the administration has yet to explain why adequate security wasn’t in place in Benghazi.
In light of the statements by the ambassador’s father, Romney must show that he’s “sensitive to the grieving father” and that he can “come across as presidential and not merely political,” said Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University who served as director for Defense Policy and Arms Control at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.
Romney must do more than just accuse the administration of failing to provide enough security at the compound if he wants to gain an advantage, Feaver said. “He has to show that he understands the broader strategic context. The opportunity is for him to present a compelling analysis of the threats we face in the Middle East.”
The Romney campaign on Oct. 10 issued a statement expressing respect for the wishes of the mother of Glen Doherty, who also died in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya. Doherty’s mother had criticized Romney for telling the story of meeting her son at campaign stops.
In addition to adding nuance to his Libya criticism, Romney is under pressure to begin filling in his tax proposals.
The Oct. 12 report by Congress’s nonpartisan scorekeeper on taxes raised new doubts about Romney’s call for a 20 percent income-tax rate cut that he says he would be paid for by limiting deductions, credits and exemptions.
The committee’s findings show immediate repeal of some of the most popular tax benefits would pay for only a 4 percent cut in U.S. income tax rates.
Romney says he can broaden the tax base and create enough economic growth to offset his tax cuts, while Obama maintains it’s mathematically impossible. Romney would need either to raise middle-class taxes or increase the deficit, Obama charges.
While there are major differences between the assumptions underlying Romney’s plan and the committee study, the findings emphasize shortcomings in Romney’s approach, said Daniel Shaviro, a tax law professor at New York University.
While polls indicate that voters say Obama would do a better job on foreign policy, Republicans point to surveys showing that voters less satisfied since the assault in Libya.
The Obama administration was “trying to sell a narrative about the Mideast that the wars are receding and that al-Qaeda was being defeated” until the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, which killed Stevens and three other Americans, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said yesterday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
U.S. intelligence officials say they are investigating whether the Libyan militia group suspected of carrying out the assault, Ansar al-Sharia, has operational ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a loose-knit extremist group that has made inroads in Niger, Mali and other northern Africa nations.
Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said “we don’t have substantial evidence yet” on exactly what transpired.