BURLINGTON, Mass. — Republican Mitt Romney is arguing America needs new foreign policy leadership, using President Barack Obama’s handling of the Middle East as an opening to criticize the incumbent before Wednesday’s first presidential debate.

With both candidates hunkered down and practicing for their first face-off, Romney is offering a mixed argument against the president after a rough month that left the Republican trailing the incumbent in swing states even as they are closely running in nationwide polls.

In an opinion piece published Monday in The Wall Street Journal, Romney tried to show how he could be a better commander in chief as he accused the administration of minimizing the seriousness of the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya and other threats in the region. However, none of his ads running in the few states that will determine who will win the race mention world affairs and instead are focused heavily on the economy.

Romney’s campaign had promised a focused argument against Obama’s handling of the economy earlier this year. But tumultuous events overseas and the revelation of a secretly recorded video of Romney telling donors that 47 percent of the country believes they are victims entitled to government assistance has pushed his campaign off its planned course.

The first debate is focused on domestic policy, and Romney adviser Ed Gillespie acknowledged Monday that the former Massachusetts governor expects questions about the video.

Obama was huddling Monday with top advisers at a desert resort in Nevada. Romney had practice planned in Massachusetts, where he also spent most of the weekend working with his debate team. The Republican challenger was then headed to Denver, the site of the first debate, later Monday for a rally and more preparation for the high-stakes event.

Five weeks from Election Day, polls show Romney trailing Obama in many of the nine states that will determine the outcome of the White House race. The three October debates give Romney one of his best opportunities to stem Obama’s momentum and convince the public to back his vision for the nation’s future.

“What I’m most concerned about is having a serious discussion about what we need to do to keep the country growing and restore security to hard-working Americans,” Obama said Sunday night during a rally in Las Vegas. “That is what people are going to be listening for. That’s the debate you deserve.”

Romney planned to deliver a major foreign policy speech in the coming weeks and argued in The Wall Street Journal that the United States appears to be at the mercy of disturbing developments overseas, instead of shaping them.

“We’re not moving them in a direction that protects our people or our allies,” Romney wrote. “And that’s dangerous.”

His running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, and other Republicans appeared on Sunday news shows and criticized Obama’s response to the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. Consulate in Libya that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans working there.

Ryan said on “Fox News Sunday” that the Obama administration’s response was slow, confused and inconsistent. He accused the president of having a policy of weakness.

“We’re seeing the ugly fruits of the Obama foreign policy unravel around the world on our TV screens,” Ryan said. “Syria, you’ve got 20,000 dead people. Iran is closer toward a nuclear weapon. The Middle East peace process is in shambles and we have our flags being burned all around the world. Russia is thwarting us at every stage in the process. This is a weak foreign policy with terrible results which makes us less safe.”

Gillespie and fellow Romney adviser Kevin Madden told reporters during a conference call on Monday that the disparate set of pitches — on health care, taxes, the economy, foreign policy and energy — are all part of the argument that the country can’t afford four more years of Obama.

“Our message is very clear, which is we cannot afford four more years like the last four years. And we need a real recovery. We need policies that are going to help,” Gillespie said.

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