Mitt Romney Addresses National Guard Convention

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney addressed the National Guard Association Convention in Reno, Nev., Tuesday, on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Romney has come in for criticism after giving an acceptance speech in Tampa last month that did not mention the war in Afghanistan.

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Mitt Romney used the 9/11 anniversary to praise servicemembers and talk about his own views of national security. Democrats have been attacking the Republican nominee for president on foreign policy issues, so Romney went to the National Guard convention in Reno, Nevada, to defend himself. He flew all the way across the country and back in one day to deliver this speech. And NPR's Ari Shapiro listened in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: There was no mistaking this for a typical political rally. Thousands of men and women sat in rows, in uniform. Signs announced their home state. And Mitt Romney was introduced as the one-time commander in chief of the Massachusetts National Guard.

MITT ROMNEY: I would normally speak to a gathering like this about the differences between my and my opponent's plans for military and for our national security. There is a time and place for that, but this day is not that.

SHAPIRO: Romney didn't mention the president once. He drew contrasts, but subtly. For example, this is a standard line in Romney's stump speech.

ROMNEY: For this to be an American century we must have a military that is second to none. That is so strong no one would ever think of testing it.

(APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: Usually that's followed by an attack on President Obama for trying to shrink the military. But not here. Instead Romney reminisced. He told the story of where he was on 9/11. And he heaped praise on America's servicemen and women, including the National Guard members in the audience.

ROMNEY: It's an honor to be among those whose sense of duty and love of country lift our hearts and our spirits.

SHAPIRO: Some of this is, frankly, damage control. At the Republican convention in Tampa, Romney made history in a way he might not have intended. He was the first man in decades to formally accept the republican presidential nomination without mentioning American troops. And he didn't mention the war in Afghanistan either.

Democrats have been trying to use that to their advantage ever since. Obama campaign surrogate and former NATO commander Wesley Clark said Romney has shown himself unfit to lead America on the world stage. He spoke to reporters in a conference call Monday.

WESLEY CLARK: Let's be clear. Romney's reckless talk, the empty bluster, his world view, they all seem to be stuck in the Cold War mentality.

SHAPIRO: Romney tried to rebut some of those claims in Reno yesterday. He described visiting Iraq and Afghanistan as Massachusetts governor. And he talked about the Afghan conflict more than usual, without announcing any new policies.

ROMNEY: Our goal should be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014. We should evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military commanders.

SHAPIRO: There's a reason for Democrats to feel good about their chances with the national security crowd. For the first time in decades, voters say they trust Democrats more than they trust Republicans on these issues.

At this conference, almost everyone I spoke to said they were planning to vote for Romney, but not because of national security. Kerry Kinney is a government sales manager from Virginia who voted for Obama in 2008.

KERRY KINNEY: I think we just need somebody with a little bit more business sense in there to get our economy back where it needs to be and get people back to work and I just don't think Obama can do that.

SHAPIRO: So even at a National Guard conference, the economy reigns supreme.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Jacksonville.

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