INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told veterans Wednesday that he'll make finding jobs for them a priority as he accused Democratic President Barack Obama of weakening the nation's defenses.
Invoking the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — referring to "a plume of smoke on a clear blue morning" — Romney said protecting the country is the president's highest duty as he worked to pitch himself as a potential commander in chief. He told veterans meeting in Indiana that he's already started planning how to change veterans' services to help them during a Romney administration.
"I'm going to make reforming that agency a personal priority," Romney said, ticking through a series of policy promises. He said he would allow GI Bill beneficiaries to attend any public school at in-state tuition rates, encourage states to create a common system to recognize credentials veterans have earned through military training, and allow veterans to seek care from the active duty military's TRICARE health system if they can't get timely health services from the VA.
Romney criticized the series of automatic defense cuts that will begin in January 2013 unless Congress acts to stop it. His vice presidential running mate, Paul Ryan, voted to approve the legislation that authorized those cuts alongside reductions in domestic spending.
The American Legion speech in Indiana gave Romney an opportunity to assail his Democratic opponent far from where others have focused more on the candidate's biography in order to sell the Republican nominee to the American people. In Tampa, Fla., speakers at the Republican National Convention — including 2008 presidential nominee John McCain and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — planned to highlight Romney's foreign policy credentials.
Obama, campaigning in Virginia, accused his opponent of offering words but no action. "He likes to talk tough but he doesn't have a lot of details when it comes to these critical issues," the president said. "And so what I have said not just to you but most importantly to those young men and women in uniform who are serving us every day is that you will know where I stand."
Romney's foreign and defense experience is limited to several trips abroad as a private businessman and commanding the Massachusetts National Guard. During a trip abroad last month, Romney drew criticism for his remarks about Olympic security and how culture affected the Israeli and Palestinian economies.
In the address, the Republican nominee highlighted why defense and foreign policy experience can be so critical.
"You and I know that our debates can change suddenly, with a ringing phone in the dead of night, or a grim-faced reporter in the middle of the day. Or a plume of smoke on a clear blue morning," Romney said.
He began his remarks to the American Legion by acknowledging the tropical storm churning over the Gulf Coast, flooding communities in Louisiana and threatening lives.
"I appreciate this invitation to join you on dry land this afternoon," Romney joked as he opened his remarks. "Our thoughts are of course with the people of the Gulf Coast states. Seven years ago today, they were bracing for Hurricane Katrina."
Behind the scenes, GOP officials said Romney and his team were considering a visit to the hurricane strike zone. They said there were no current plans to change Romney's convention schedule and that no decisions had been made about a potential visit.
With rain beating down on New Orleans and flooding intensifying, eyes are turning to the battered Gulf Coast. Romney's campaign has been keeping in touch with governors in the region, particularly Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Campaign officials have also been in contact with the American Red Cross and the National Weather Service.
The storm is diverting attention from the festivities in Tampa, where Republicans officially nominated Romney for president on Tuesday. Romney officials and convention organizers have been holding conference calls about the weather every few hours for the past several days as they consider whether or how to change plans.
Romney had initially planned to appear in the convention hall via video from Indiana, speaking to attendees in conjunction with McCain. The campaign scrapped that plan Wednesday and Romney will instead return to Tampa. Officials wouldn't say if he planned to appear in person with McCain at the convention.
Hunt reported from Tampa, Fla.