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Thursday, May 3, 2012 - Page updated at 06:00 a.m.

Obama, Romney spar over bin Laden death

By MICHAEL BARBARO
The New York Times

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Mitt Romney said Monday that "even Jimmy Carter" would have issued the order to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan a year ago, dismissing President Obama's suggestion that Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, would not have followed the same path as president.

The swipe, delivered casually on the rope line of a campaign event, touched off a pointed exchange with the president, who quickly accused Romney of flip-flopping.

Attempting to minimize Obama's signature military accomplishment and burnish his standing as a potential commander in chief, Romney implied any president would have acted on the same intelligence as Obama, who oversaw the early morning raid one year ago Tuesday.

Asked by reporters if he, too, would have given the order to raid bin Laden's compound, Romney replied, "Of course, of course," before taking the jab at Carter, the former Democratic president known for his longtime work promoting peace.

"Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order," Romney said.

Obama, without mentioning his Republican rival by name, suggested that remark ran counter to Romney's past statements about how far America should go to pursue bin Laden. Referring to the hunt for the terrorist mastermind in 2007, Romney said, "It's not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person." A few days later, Romney said of bin Laden, "he's going to pay and he will die."

After the raid, Romney praised the troops in the operation and Obama for his actions.

Obama's re-election campaign has seized on the original comment, asserting that Romney, had he been president, might not have carried out the attack.

"I assume that people meant what they said when they said it," Obama said during a news conference Monday with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda at the White House.

"I said I'd go after bin Laden if we had a clear shot at him, and I did," Obama said. "If there are others who have said one thing and now suggest they'd do something else, then I'd let them go ahead and explain it."

Over the past week, as the anniversary of bin Laden's killing has neared, the president's re-election campaign has turned the much celebrated attack into an unexpected flash point in the presidential race. Republicans have accused Obama and his aides of politicizing the killing in an unseemly way.

The president's allies, eager to deny Republicans their traditional advantage with voters on national-security issues, have portrayed it as a legitimate part of Obama's record and sought to keep Romney on the defensive over his remarks on the subject.

The Obama campaign has produced a stark commercial about the raid that ominously asks, "Which path would Mitt Romney have taken?" Vice President Joseph Biden last week wondered aloud if bin Laden would be still be alive today had Romney been president.

And on Sunday, during an appearance on "Meet the Press," an Obama campaign adviser, Robert Gibbs, said, "I don't think it's clear that he would" have given the order to kill bin Laden.

By referring to Carter, the Romney campaign is trying to tie Obama to a Democratic president considered by many to be weak on national-security issues. But the comparison is somewhat strained: The military raid for which Carter is best known — the attempted 1980 rescue of hostages from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran — was a failure, while the raid against bin Laden was a success.

This is not the first time that the Romney campaign has invoked Carter's name. One of Romney's advisers, Richard Williamson, wrote last week for Foreign Policy magazine that events including North Korea's recent test of a long-range missile "may be bringing us to a juncture at which the inexperience and incompetence of a presidency crystallizes in the public mind."

"In short, we are approaching a Jimmy Carter moment," wrote Williamson, a senior diplomat under several Republican presidents. "In a perilous world, this is not the kind of leadership our country needs."

The comparison to Carter appears to be a response to the claim that Romney would pursue an obsolete, throwback approach to international affairs. And, in an effort to claim an advantage on national security, Romney on Tuesday will observe bin Laden's death by visiting a fire station in Lower Manhattan with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, an outspoken critic of Obama's policies in the Mideast.

The question of how — and whether — to use the death of bin Laden in the context of a presidential campaign is fraught with emotional and politically sensitive baggage.

Romney aides said the Obama campaign's highlighting of the raid turned a nonpartisan victory in the war on terror into a crass, political ad.

But Obama on Monday rejected the suggestion that his administration or his campaign had been treating the subject with anything but the seriousness that it deserves.

"I hardly think that you've seen any excessive celebration taking place here," Obama said. "The American people rightly remember what we as a country accomplished in bringing to justice somebody who killed over 3,000 of our citizens."

He added: "For us to use that time for some reflection, to give thanks to those who participated, is entirely appropriate and that's what's been taking place."

New York Times reporters Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.

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