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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's move now to presidential politics. President Obama this week seemed to own the stage with a dramatic trip to Afghanistan and address to the nation on the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death.

Yesterday, however, Republican Mitt Romney's campaign saw an opening with the case of a Chinese dissident. Here's NPR's Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: A president is often hostage to events he can't totally control - case in point may be the unfolding drama of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng.

Yesterday, Mitt Romney tried to take advantage of this new controversy. He hedged his remarks, but still ripped into the president for the handling of Chen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MITT ROMNEY REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: According to these reports, if they're accurate, that our embassy failed to put in place the kind of verifiable measures that would assure the safety of Mr. Chen and his family, if these reports are true, this is a dark day for freedom and it's a day of shame for the Obama administration.

LIASSON: Romney's comment on Chen's case, which is still unfolding, fits into his campaign pledge to get tougher on China. GOP strategist Ed Rogers says this is a good example of the choices a challenger has to make

ED ROGERS: It's a challenge to be creative and come up with a news hook that the press will buy into every day. Every day, there's news coverage from now on about Romney. He either makes it, or somebody makes it up for him. It's going to be difficult. It's the hardest part of this challenge, really.

LIASSON: On Thursday, Romney was taking advantage of the potential damage that a high-profile Chinese dissident could do to the president, while Mr. Obama struggled to balance human rights and the U.S. relationship with China. But on Tuesday, it was Romney who had been in a box, as the president drove the story of the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. Democratic strategist Jim Jordan.

JIM JORDAN: The truth is that no challenger or his campaign can ever match the size and grandeur and spectacle and influence of a sitting president. It's simply impossible to.

LIASSON: Jordan has been on the receiving end of this dynamic when he worked for John Kerry in 2004. He says Mr. Obama is learning how to use all the tools an incumbent has.

JORDAN: His ability to create visuals, to create a story, and to set the policy and political agenda is just incomparable. There's nothing Romney can do about it.

LIASSON: On Tuesday, while the commander-in-chief was jetting off in the middle of the night to Afghanistan, Romney was delivering pizza to a fire station at ground zero with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and complaining that the president was politicizing the bin Laden anniversary.

ROGERS: No better than a C-plus.

LIASSON: Rogers gives the Romney campaign a poor grade for how it responded to the Obama camp's suggestion that Romney might not have sanctioned a similar raid to get bin Laden.

ROGERS: They didn't have a former uniformed senior general to go out and talk about that on Romney's behalf. They used campaign hands. They used talking points.

LIASSON: But many Republicans think Romney also needs to do something bigger in order to compete with the president, something more than just reminding voters they aren't better off than they were four years ago.

MICHAEL GERSON: I don't think that's going to be enough.

LIASSON: Michael Gerson is a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. He says if Romney lays out a set of ideas, he'll also be able to fix another problem: the appearance that he's indifferent to the concerns of average Americans.

GERSON: He's going to have to do that by embracing some kind of agenda for social mobility and opportunity, and to make a sophisticated argument that conservative and free-market ideas actually achieve this. It's going to require some serous policy work. He's going to have to identify himself as a - not just the alternative to, you know, three years of failed economic policy, but as embodying some kind of economic hope.

LIASSON: Over the next several months, as the president controls what he can and tries to manage what he can't, Romney has to find an agenda beyond a critique of the Mr. Obama. And he'll have to decide how to wants to insert himself into the news of the day, whether it's a Chinese dissident or a monthly jobs report. Mara Liasson, NPR News.

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