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Obama At The U.N., In Shadow Of Campaign Politics

Campaign politics shadowing every word, President Barack Obama will step before the world and declare that anti-American rage and riots among Muslims abroad will never force the United States to backtrack on diplomacy.

In his final international address before the November election, Obama on Tuesday has a United Nations stage afforded to presidents, not presidential challengers. He will use it to try to boost his political standing without mentioning his opponent.

Obama's comments to the General Assembly will be scrutinized around the globe and by the gathering of presidents and prime ministers in the famed United Nations hall, given the tumult, terrorism, nuclear threats and poverty that bind so many nations. He will respond to unrest in the Muslim world and seek to underscore U.S. resolve in keeping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

Yet, were there any doubt that the U.S. presidential campaign hung heavy over Obama's speech to the General Assembly, Republican rival Mitt Romney shredded it by assailing Obama's foreign affairs leadership on the eve of the president's speech.

"This is time for a president who will shape events in the Middle East, not just be merciful or be at the mercy of the events," Romney said Monday. Focusing on the killing of the U.S. ambassador in Libya and mass bloodshed in Syria, Romney repeatedly ridiculed Obama's comment that nations moving toward democracy after the Arab Spring face "bumps in the road."

That prompted White House spokesman Jay Carney to fire back at Romney: "There is a certain rather desperate attempt to grasp at words and phrases here to find political advantage, and in this case that's profoundly offensive."

Obama's activities at the United Nations said plenty, too: There are not many of them. Campaigning is his imperative.

He is skipping the private meetings with key allies that a U.S. president typically schedules when the whole international community comes to New York. The president will spend only 24 hours in New York in total this time, and he spent some of it Monday to appear on "The View," giving a talk show interview intended to sell his election pitch to a big TV audience.

The dominant theme of Obama's U.N. speech, according to his aides and Obama's own recent words, will be to underscore his response to the protests raging in places across the Middle East and North Africa. As he has for days, Obama will condemn the violence, defend democratic principles of free speech and promise no U.S. withdrawal of outreach.

Much of the growing ire is aimed at the United States because of an anti-Islam film produced in this country, but the White House has now deemed the attack on its consulate in Libya a "terrorist attack" and has not ruled that it was premeditated. Four Americans, including ambassador Chris Stevens, died in what Obama now says "wasn't just a mob action."

Obama noted in the TV interview Monday that many Libyans have protested the extremist strains in their nation.

"Part of the message for us is that the overwhelming majority of Muslims, they want the same things that families here want," Obama said. "They want opportunity. They want jobs. They want peace. ... We're going to stay engaged. Because ultimately, over the long term, our security is going to be tied up with the success of these countries."

In a preview of Obama's speech, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appealed for Muslims to show "dignity" as they protest the film denigrating the Prophet Muhammad.

"Dignity does not come from avenging insults," she said in a speech to her husband's Clinton Global Initiative. Romney and Obama were to speak there as well on Tuesday.

The secretary of state was also standing in for Obama. She saw the presidents of Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya and Pakistan. She was due later in the week to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

For U.S. presidents, the yearly United Nations address is always laced with domestic politics even though the speeches are scripted without campaign references. Wars and the failed attempts at Mideast peace have dominated in recent years.

Romney's campaign made the campaign linkage directly Monday.

"On the eve of his United Nations address, President Obama's foreign policy is in disarray," spokesman Ryan Williams said. "As president, Mitt Romney will repair our relationships abroad and create a safer, more secure nation."

Polling shows Obama has a clear edge over Romney when voters are asked who they think is a stronger leader and would better protect the country.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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