Mitt Romney speaks during a visit to Weatherly Casting Co. in Weatherly,… (Emmanuel Dunand, AFP/Getty…)
CORNWALL, Pa. — In hawkish remarks that drew cheers from an audience of religious conservatives, Mitt Romney accused President Obama on Saturday of being more afraid of Israel attacking Iran than of Iran developing a nuclear weapon.
The Republican presidential candidate, who frequently attacks the administration for failing to back Israel's government more aggressively, escalated his criticism a notch. He responded with ridicule when asked what he would do, if elected, to strengthen U.S. relations with the Jewish state.
"I think, by and large, you can just look at the things the president has done and do the opposite," Romney said, to laughter and applause from members of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, an evangelical Christian political organization.
"You look at his policies with regards to Iran," Romney continued. "He's almost sounded like he's more frightened that Israel might take military action than he's concerned that Iran might become nuclear."
Those words prompted prolonged applause and cheering from an audience of 250 in the ballroom of a Washington hotel. Romney addressed the group via video hookup from an outdoor site in Pennsylvania, his customized campaign bus parked prominently in the background.
The Obama campaign, in a statement, asked if Romney meant that "he would reverse President Obama's policies of sending Israel the largest security assistance packages in history" or "abandon the coalition working together to confront Iran's nuclear ambitions?"
Spokesman Ben LaBolt accused Romney of "trying to score cheap political points" by distorting Obama's "record of support for Israel."
Romney said that as president, he would "forge a strong working relationship with the leadership in Israel."
"I would make it very clear that for us, as well as for them, it is unacceptable for Iran to become a nuclear nation and that we're prepared to take any and all action to keep that from happening," he added, applause drowning out his next line.
If he were in office now, Romney said, he would be encouraging countries in the region, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to arm "the insurgents" in Syria's civil war.
"But perhaps overarching is this: I would not want to show a dime's worth of distance between ourselves and our allies like Israel. If we have disagreements, you know, we can talk about them behind closed doors. But to the world, you show that we're locked arm in arm," he said.
Ralph Reed, a former Georgia Republican Party chairman and Christian Coalition head who now directs the Faith and Freedom Coalition, took the stage shortly before Romney spoke. His group is attempting to get millions of evangelical Christians who aren't registered to vote to sign up and turn out this fall, by making what they describe as the Obama administration's "war on religion" a central organizing theme.
In his remarks, which avoided hot-button social issues like gay marriage and abortion that are dear to many Christian conservatives, Romney echoed the rallying call.
"The decision by the Obama administration to attack our first freedom, religious freedom, is one which I think a lot of people were shocked to see," said the former Massachusetts governor, referring to a requirement that employers, including those connected to religious organizations like the Catholic Church, provide contraceptive coverage under the 2010 healthcare law. The requirement has been modified.
Romney's campaign flooded the hotel ballroom with volunteers carrying campaign posters shortly before his son, Josh, appeared in person to introduce the remote hookup, which was beamed onto two large TV screens.
Some evangelical leaders have been openly hostile to Romney because of his Mormon faith. But the Republican presidential candidate made it clear that he badly needs the support of evangelical Christians in November and is working to get it.
"One of the reasons I'm on this broadcast with you," Romney said in concluding his 20-minute speech, "is that I desperately want to see you working hard, knocking on doors, calling friends, telling them what's at stake."
Romney spent the rest of the day campaigning in central Pennsylvania, the second of six states on a tour of small towns in battleground states. In Weatherly, Romney visited a durable goods factory. He planned to stop at a Wawa gas station and convenience store in Quakertown, but scratched the event when protesters and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, showed up to denounce his economic plans.
Romney also campaigned at a historic foundry in Cornwall, where he told a crowd that a sandwich he had bought in Wawa demonstrated the vibrancy of the private sector.