Washington • President Obama, assailed by Mitt Romney and other Republicans over defense priorities and foreign policy, got help from two former Republican secretaries of state who undercut a main line of attack.
Retired Army Gen. Colin Powell, who was secretary of state under former President George W. Bush, on Thursday endorsed Obama's re-election and criticized what he said were Romney's changing positions on international affairs.
"Sometimes I don't sense that he has thought through these issues as thoroughly as he should have," Powell, who also backed Obama in 2008, said of the Republican nominee during an interview on the "CBS This Morning" program.
John Sununu, a co-chairman of Romney's presidential campaign, last night questioned Powell's motive for supporting the president - only to back down hours later.
Sununu, former governor of New Hampshire, one of the swing states that will determine the outcome of the Nov. 6 election, said on CNN that "when you take a look at Colin Powell, you have to wonder if that's an endorsement based on issues, or whether he's got a slightly different reason for preferring President Obama."
Asked by CNN's Piers Morgan the reason, Sununu, 73, said: "Well, I think when you have somebody of your own race that you're proud of being president of the United States, I applaud Colin for standing with him."
Hours later, Sununu issued a statement to National Review Online about Powell's endorsement, saying, "I do not doubt that it was based on anything but his support of the president's policies."
Separately Thursday, Condoleezza Rice, Powell's successor in the Bush administration, distanced herself from criticism leveled by Romney and other Republicans that Obama's response to the attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya, which killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, amounted to "denial" of what occurred.
"When things are unfolding very, very quickly it's not always easy to know what's going on on the ground," Rice said Wednesday on the Fox News Channel program "On the Record with Greta Van Susteren." "It's easy to try and jump to conclusions about what had happened here."
Rice is backing Romney in the presidential race.
While Romney has steered away from foreign policy in campaign stops since the Oct. 22 debate with Obama, the topic has continued to reverberate in the election contest.
Congressional Republicans are demanding an investigation into how the U.S. responded to the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and an accounting of why the administration's explanation of the events changed in the days and weeks afterward. Both candidates also continue to raise the specter of China as an economic competitor to the U.S.
In Ohio Thursday, Romney vowed that he is "going to make sure China doesn't cheat" on trade. He didn't repeat previous promises to declare China a currency manipulator on his first day in office.
Privately, the former Massachusetts governor's campaign advisers have tried to give assurances that the candidate's campaign language on China would soften if he takes office.
Romney advisers including former World Bank President Robert Zoellick have sought to reassure at least some foreign officials that Romney wouldn't start a trade war with China, according to a person with direct knowledge and who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations.
The person said campaign operatives say Romney's pledge to brand China a currency manipulator is election rhetoric that won't be carried out in office.
Another former U.S. diplomat who has served under Republican and Democratic administrations also said that Rich Williamson, Romney's chief foreign affairs adviser, told him Romney would govern from the center if elected. That person also spoke on condition of anonymity.
While the economy remains the election's dominant issue, Romney has narrowed Obama's lead with voters on foreign policy. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Monday, the day of their debate on the topic, showed that 49 percent of likely voters chose Obama when asked who they trust most to handle international affairs, while 46 percent picked Romney. Obama led on the question by 7 percentage points earlier this month.
With polls showing a tight race, Obama and Romney are racing to campaign in as many closely contested states as possible with less than two weeks before Election Day.
Romney yesterday sought to turn the tables on Obama by playing off one of the central themes of the president's 2008 campaign: hope and change.
"This is an election about big things, because the American people can't afford four more years like the last four years," Romney said in Worthington, Ohio. "That's why we're going to see big change in November - change that's going to bring a new hope and new opportunity to the American people."
Romney said a second Obama term would make it harder for Americans to get health care or a mortgage, limit educational choices for children, saddle students with more debt and leave home values to "bump along in the basement."
Ohio is one of nine battleground states that account for 110 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency and where both candidates are concentrating their effort. The biggest is Florida, with 29 electoral votes. An Oct. 17-18 CNN survey of likely voters there found a virtual tie, with Romney at 49 percent and Obama at 48 percent.
Nevada, where both have campaigned this week, has six electoral votes, and an NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist College survey taken Oct. 23-24 showed Obama with a 50 percent to 47 percent advantage there. The two are tied at 48 percent in Colorado, with nine votes, according to a separate NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
Obama, after starting the day with appearances in Tampa, Fla., and Richmond, Va., traveled to his hometown of Chicago to cast an early-vote ballot, becoming the first president to do so.
Obama has been emphasizing early voting in every stop he's made. "We've seen our numbers increase with early voting in some of these key states," said Jen Psaki, a campaign spokeswoman.
A poll released by Time magazine on Wednesday shows early voting has helped Obama to a 5 percentage-point advantage over Romney in Ohio, which has 18 electoral votes. Obama led 49 percent to 44 percent among Ohioans surveyed Oct. 22-23 who said they will vote on Nov. 6 or who have cast ballots already. Ohioans could begin voting on Oct. 2.
At the Martin Luther King Community Center on Chicago's south side, Obama went through the paperwork and produced his driver's license.
"Ignore the fact that there's no gray hair in that picture," he told the clerk.
With assistance from Margaret Talev, Mark Silva and Timothy R. Homan in Washington.