Mitt Romney campaigns at Van Dyck Park in Fairfax, Va. (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)
FAIRFAX, Va. — Mitt Romney tried to turn around Democrats’ claims that he is a fabulously rich guy who doesn't care about the average American, portraying President Obama instead on Wednesday as the candidate whose policies are widening the gap between rich and poor.
Largely sweeping aside the debate over his response to attacks on U.S. diplomatic posts in the Middle East -- a dispute that took his campaign off track the day before – the GOP presidential nominee returned to his chief campaign issue, the economy, but with a twist.
"What he has done hasn't helped," he said of Obama. "It has led to a larger and larger gap between the wealthier and the rest of America. ... We want real change. I'm going to bring real change and get America working again."
Romney spoke at a park in Fairfax County, Va., a largely affluent suburb of Washington, D.C., in a state that both campaigns consider crucial to winning in November. His speech on a warm, picture-perfect day represented a back-to-basics approach after a week in which he sometimes seemed to lurch from subject to subject.
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Gone were references to the pledge of allegiance and religious freedom, gone were claims that "we built it" that mocked Obama's now-famous remark about business owners not being solely responsible for their success. And gone was talk of Obama as an apologist for America abroad -- a theme that prompted rebukes from some within his own party Wednesday that Romney was inappropriately criticizing the president during a foreign crisis.
In their place was a focus on the economy, stressing policies on energy, foreign trade and small business that Romney outlined at the Republican National Convention last month. What was new was his emphasis on the income gap -- an argument that previously was associated with Democrats, who have been accused by Republicans of waging class warfare, largely for advocating higher taxes on the rich and calling attention to the growing disparities.
After his initial reference, Romney returned to the theme of rich and poor, saying Obama would widen the income gap further if reelected. The argument was a repudiation of the idea, hammered home constantly by Obama, that Romney is the candidate of the rich and will largely benefit others like himself, not the middle class.
Romney didn't entirely ignore the controversy that he started Tuesday night, when he accused the Obama administration of sympathizing with the mobs that scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans at the U.S. Consulate in eastern Libya.
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The protests and attacks apparently were sparked by a provocative video, apparently produced in the United States, that mocks the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Romney’s attack on Obama, which he reiterated Wednesday, referred to a statement issued by the embassy staff in Cairo before the violence that said the United States condemned "efforts to offend believers of all religions."
In response, Obama later said Romney “didn’t have his facts right” and that he has a “tendency to shoot first and aim later.”
On Thursday, Romney spoke in more general terms about the need for stronger American leadership in the world, accusing Obama of planning to downsize the American military and strip its ability to wage more than one war at a time. He did, however, begin his speech with a reference to the deaths in Libya.
"We have heavy hearts across America today," he said. "We're in mourning. We've lost four of our diplomats." At this point, a heckler began yelling, "Why are you politicizing Libya? Why are you politicizing Libya?" He was escorted out as the crowd chanted “USA, USA.”
Romney continued, his train of thought seemingly jarred. "What a tragedy," he said, "to lose such wonderful, wonderful people that have been so wonderful, and we appreciate their service."
A man in the crowd yelled, "It was preventable! It could have been prevented!"
Romney then said, in an apparent reference to the original heckler, "I would ask for a moment of silence, but one gentleman doesn't want to be silent, so we're going to keep on going."
He continued by saying that Obama "has done something that I find very hard to understand. Ever since FDR, we've had the capacity to be engaged in two conflicts at once. And he's said no, we're going to cut that back to only one conflict." He promised that, if elected, "we will restore our military commitment."
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Romney was referring to last year’s Defense Strategy Review, which proposed a change in overall U.S. military strategy from the ability to fight two major ground wars simultaneously to the ability to fight one ground war and one air and sea war simultaneously.