By BRADLEY KLAPPER and KASIE HUNT
WASHINGTON (AP) - Mitt Romney abruptly moderated his foreign policy positions in this week's debate on issues like ending the war in Afghanistan and averting another conflict in Iran, hoping to neutralize one of President Barack Obama's main strengths with the election only two weeks away. But the move toward the political center comes with potential pitfalls.
By abandoning several of his sharpest criticisms of Obama from the past several months, Romney risks upsetting some conservatives and reinforcing the allegation _ levied repeatedly by the president on Monday night _ that his positions lack conviction and leadership.
His aim was to appear sober and serious, a plausible commander in chief, by not engaging in saber-rattling for political points. By narrowing the gap between his positions and those of Obama, he also may have succeeded in giving undecided voters, particularly women, the impression that he would lead a war-weary America into another conflict only reluctantly.
Romney aides said both the tone and substance of their boss' arguments were intentional and that he carried with him into the debate a key piece of advice: Talk about peace.
The overarching goal, they said, was for Romney to look like a suitable commander. After adopting a more assertively militaristic tone to win the GOP nomination amid challenges from more conservative candidates, he sought at all costs to avoid appearing as a warmonger.
"I want to see peace," Romney said in his closing statement.
The shifts in the debate were stark for a candidate who only last week described Obama's foreign policy as "unraveling before our very eyes."
Unconditionally endorsing Obama's 2014 deadline for removing U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan, Romney reversed his opposition to what he had termed a "political" timetable that wasn't necessarily supported by U.S. generals on the ground. And he declared the president's troop surge in Afghanistan a success, after previously accusing Obama with removing too many troops too quickly.
On Iran, Romney stressed that efforts to dissuade the Islamic Republic from developing a nuclear weapon should be "through peaceful and diplomatic means." That came after spending the past year-and-a-half lambasting Obama for failing to levy a credible military threat against Iran and spending too much time trying to rein in Israel's hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Monday night, Romney's said Obama's sanctions on Iran were working, calling war a last resort: "It is something one would only consider if all of the other avenues had been tried to their full extent."
And on Syria, Romney modified the argument for deeper involvement he had presented in a foreign policy address earlier this month in Virginia. He argued at that time for a concerted, U.S.-led approach to ensure that Syrian rebels obtain the weapons to defeat the Assad government's "tanks, helicopters and fighter jets." On Monday he adopted Obama's caution by emphasizing the need to ensure arms don't reach "the wrong hands" and stating unequivocally that he wouldn't pursue U.S. military involvement in the conflict.
He expressed his support "entirely" for the administration's escalated drone campaign against terrorist suspects overseas and said the president acted rightly in urging Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak to leave power despite three decades of close partnership with the United States.
Obama seized on Romney's shift, rather than his new agreeability.
"We are accustomed to seeing politicians change their position from four years ago," Obama told a Florida rally Tuesday. "We are not accustomed to seeing politicians change their positions from four days ago."
The new focus reflected Romney pitching his case to a changed audience. Having largely satisfied the Republican base over several grueling months of primary campaigning, Romney is now making a last-ditch appeal to women, independents and America's remaining undecided voters as the Nov. 6 election nears. National polls show the president and the challenger running neck and neck, with battleground states such as Ohio, Virginia and Florida _ the scene of Monday's debate _ perhaps proving pivotal.
Romney's move toward the center on foreign policy follows a similar shift he has tried to engineer on domestic issues. In recent weeks, he's softened his rhetoric on immigration, emphasized the importance of regulating Wall Street banks and used a TV ad to emphasize his support for abortion rights in instances of rape and incest and if the mother's health is threatened, all risky positions in a GOP primary battle.
While Romney continues to criticize Obama for military spending cuts, his decision not to visit Israel as president and for failing to challenge Chinese currency manipulation and intellectual property theft, talking up peace was a new wrinkle designed in part to broaden his appeal particularly to women.