WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney criticized President Obama in remarks broadcast Sunday for refusing to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during this week's U.N. General Assembly meeting, saying it sends a message that the administration is distancing itself from a key Middle East ally.
“I think the exact opposite approach is what's necessary,” Mr. Romney said on the CBS News program 60 Minutes on Sunday evening.
Mr. Obama, speaking in a separate interview on the same program, said he speaks frequently with Mr. Netanyahu and described Israel as “one of our closest allies in the region.”
He also challenged Mr. Romney, who has accused the President of not standing up forcefully enough to Syria and Iran, to be more specific about his foreign policy plans.
“So if Gov. Romney is suggesting that we should start another war,” Mr. Obama said, “he should say so.”
The two presidential contenders carried out a shadow debate that offered a likely preview of the tone and substance of the first of their three face-to-face debates, to be held in Denver on Oct. 3.
Mr. Romney tried to undo some of the damage caused by his remarks to a group of wealthy donors recorded in May and released last week, in which he said that 47 percent of the American people paid no income taxes, were dependent on government, and would never vote for him.
Republican critics have called for a shake-up in the Romney campaign in the wake of the furor over the remarks and other issues.
Mr. Romney said that he was essentially tied with Mr. Obama and the campaign did not need a turnaround.
“That's not the campaign,” he said of his contentious remarks. “That was me, right?”
“I've got a very effective campaign. It's doing a very good job. But not everything I say is elegant.”
Mr. Romney said he would consider means-testing Social Security benefits for future retirees, and he put some distance between his plans for refashioning Medicare as a voluntary voucher program and the proposal by his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, to reduce payments to the health-care program by $700 billion.
“Yeah, he was going to use that money to reduce the budget deficit,” Mr. Romney said of Mr. Ryan. “I'm putting it back into Medicare, and I'm the guy running for president, not him.”
Mr. Obama took a fairly combative tone in his interview, defending the administration's actions on financial bailouts, health-care legislation, and efforts to help homeowners and job seekers.
He laid most of the blame on Republicans in Congress who he said were intent on denying him a second term and cared nothing for the plight of the jobless.
He said he regretted that he had failed in one of the central promises of his 2008 campaign — to change the tone of Washington.
“I'm the first one to confess the spirit that I brought to Washington that I wanted to see instituted, where we weren't constantly in a political slugfest but were focused more on problem solving, that, you know, I haven't fully accomplished that,” Mr. Obama said.
Both men said that their work days ended about 10 p.m., though they described their late-night routines somewhat differently.
Mr. Obama said that after his wife and daughters went to sleep he would spend several hours reading and writing.
Sometimes, he said, he would repair to the Truman Balcony and gaze out over the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial.
“And so,” the President said, “those are moments of reflection that, you know, help gird you for the next challenge and the next day.”
Mr. Romney said that he would end the day with a conversation with his wife, Ann, and then read and plan the next day.
After that, he said, “I pray. Prayer is a time to connect with the divine, but also time, I'm sure, to concentrate one's thoughts, to meditate, and to imagine what might be.”
“What do you ask for?” Scott Pelley, the CBS correspondent, inquired.
“That's between me and God,” Mr. Romney replied with a laugh.
“But mostly wisdom and understanding. I seek to understand things I don't understand.”
Amid mounting pressure to spend less time raising money and more time explaining his plans to voters, Mr. Romney was refocusing his schedule on the most competitive states.
“We’re going to keep on campaigning hard,” he said while traveling to Colorado late Sunday to campaign after weekend fund-raisers in California.
“I think the fund-raising season is probably a little quieter going forward.”
Mr. Romney blamed Mr. Obama’s decision to bypass traditional spending limits during the 2008 campaign.
“I’d far rather be spending my time out in the key swing states campaigning door to door if necessary, but in rallies and various meetings,” he said. “But fund-raising is part of politics when your opponent decides not to live by the federal spending limits.”
After Colorado, Mr. Romney was to begin a three-day bus tour in Ohio today followed by a stop in Virginia — states that Mr. Obama won in 2008 but that Republicans claimed four years earlier.