WASHINGTON - As he seeks to appeal more to moderates, Mitt Romney is putting new distance between his campaign and some prominent Republican allies who are pressing him to adopt the rousing but politically risky foreign policy of former President George W. Bush.
The battle to set Romney's foreign policy has raged all year inside his campaign, but has intensified in recent weeks as Republicans have sensed a political opportunity in the Obama administration's shifting characterizations of the terrorist attack that killed four Americans at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
A senior GOP strategist close to the campaign said Romney was groping for a "version 2.0" of the Bush foreign policy, but one that would more resemble that of President Ronald Reagan during the Cold War. It would seek to assert U.S. leadership and values with a powerful military and bold rhetoric, but "with a more cautious view of where and when we use force."
The imperative is to avoid "the mistakes and miscalculations of the last decade," said the strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The Bush foreign policy is a terrible brand."
Occasionally, Romney openly evokes Reagan-era rhetoric. Last March, for instance, in a CNN interview, he called Russia the United States' "No. 1 geopolitical foe."
With foreign policy questions expected when the GOP nominee meets President Obama on Tuesday in their second debate, neoconservatives on Romney's policy team and in influential Washington circles are urging him to state clearly how and when he would use U.S. military power against adversaries, especially in the volatile post-revolutionary Middle East.
Before Romney delivered what his aides billed as a major foreign policy speech at Virginia Military Institute on Oct. 8, for example, hawks urged him to show he would be more forceful than Obama in responding to global challenges from Iran to China.
But Romney also reached out before the speech to the party's most eminent "realists," the ideological rivals of the neocons. He spoke by phone with former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, James Baker and George Shultz, as well as Bush's top diplomat, Condoleezza Rice.
In the end, Romney carefully avoided any direct warnings or aggressive language to suggest he intends to draw the United States into a new military conflict, a deeply unpopular notion after two wars started by Bush.
Romney doesn't have a single dominating figure who oversees his foreign agenda, relying instead on a group of about 200 outside advisers, campaign staff and other experts. About two-thirds are veterans of the Bush administration.
Among them are several prominent neoconservatives and defense hawks, including Elliott Abrams, Bush's deputy national security aide; Elizabeth Cheney, a former Bush State Department official and the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney; Dan Senor, former spokesman for the U.S. occupation forces in Iraq; John R. Bolton, Bush's U.N. ambassador; and Robert Kagan, a Reagan administration aide and conservative intellectual.
His inner circle talks in a Monday morning conference call. In addition to Cheney and Senor, those on the line include Richard Williamson, a Reagan and Bush aide; Mitchell Reiss, a former aide to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell; and former Sens. Jim Talent of Missouri and Norm Coleman of Minnesota.