But events overseas intervened this week to disrupt that strategy: a US ambassador and three other Americans were killed in Libya, and US missions under siege in Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere across the Arab world. It is one of those unpredictable moments that test a presidential candidate, a potentially defining one in deciding who will be the next president.
While Americans are primarily concerned about unemployment, they also seek reassurance that a candidate is up to the job of being commander-in-chief. It is the concern that Hillary Clinton tapped into during the 2008 campaign when she put out an attack ad against Barack Obama asking who Americans would want answering the 3am crisis call to the White House.
Romney has been widely judged to have failed that test this week, not just by the Democrats and the media, but also by foreign policy experts and even many Republicans who are maintaining a tactful silence. By launching his ill-timed and inaccurate attempt on the administration's Middle East policy, he looked like he was trying to score political points while a crisis was unfolding in which Americans had been killed.
And potentially more damaging for his campaign in the long term, he has found himself battling not on the economy but in an area where Obama, the president who was in charge when Osama bin Laden was hunted down, is strongest. Polls show approval ratings 7% to 10% higher than Romney's on security, normally a Republican strength.
Behind the sound and fury over this week's event lie serious questions over the shape of Romney's foreign policy and the key members of the 40-strong team who are advising him on it. Over the last three days, various senior personnel have been doing the rounds of media studios to "clarify" Romney's position.
Dan Senor, one of the Romney's closest advisers on foreign policy, went on CNN on Wednesday to blame the Obama administration for the chaos in the Middle East. Another foreign policy adviser, Richard Williamson, who has been engaged in foreign affairs since the Reagan administration, told the Washington Post in an interview published Friday that the killings would not have happened if Romney had been president. In a separate interview on CNN Friday, Williamson said: "The world is better off when America leads."
But, as so often where Romney's foreign policy is concerned, little is offered in the way of detail. So even now it remains unclear where Romney stands.
Doe he see foreign affairs through the eyes of a businessman, in terms of goals and outcomes, as he suggested in his 2010 book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness?
In this scenario, he comes across as a pragmatist, a realist. This is backed up by his appointment of Bob Zoellick, the former World Bank president and relative moderate who, if Romney wins, will lead the foreign affairs transition team that will liaise with Obama administration between the election on 6 November and taking office on 21 January.
Or is Romney – part of one of the most inexperienced Republican tickets on foreign policy since before the second world war – being led by the hawks and neo-conservatives in his team? These include Senor and the Bush-appointed former ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, a hawk who advocates bombing Iran.
David Rothkopf, a former member of the Clinton administration who has written a book about foreign policy and the White House, said journalists, analysts and others looking for clues as to Romney's foreign policy were confused by divisions inside his foreign policy team and attributed Romney's extreme views to his right-leaning staff.
But Rothkopf sees a different picture slowly beginning to emerge. Romney views Russia as America's number one enemy, has threatened a trade war against China, lined up behind Israel over a possible attack on Iran and suggested the Palestinians are an inferior culture. It is an aggressive foreign policy stance, well to the right of Obama's.
"After a series of such views and particularly his attack on Obama policies in the immediate aftermath of the killings in Benghazi, it is now clearer that the driving and unifying force behind his statements is the candidate himself," Rothkopf said.
"He now has a body of statements to look at that suggests strongly he is no moderate. He leans hard right, toward the neo-cons, toward American exceptionalism, toward policies much like those that failed and fell into disrepute during the George W Bush era."
Peter Feaver, who served in as a special adviser to the national security council in the Bush administration and is a Romney supporter, does not see him as being led by neo-conservative advisers. Instead, he sees him as a big-tent Republican, accommodating all three tips of the party's foreign policy triangle – pragmatists, hawks and neo-cons – and positioning himself in the middle.
What motivates Romney, Feaver said, is American exceptionalism, not the crude version that suggests the country is better than other nations, but in the sense that America has a responsibility to help deal with the world's problems in a way that, say, Belgium does not.
The row this week began when the US embassy put out a tweet on Tuesday disassociating itself from an Islamophobic film made in California which had appeared on YouTube with an Arabic translation. It was before the Cairo embassy was attacked and before the killings in Benghazi.
After consulting his foreign policy advisers – including Williamson – and his political team during a four-hour flight from Nevada to Florida, Romney put together a response, portraying the tweet as an American apology and blaming the Obama administration.
Feaver saw Romney's response as leaning towards the neo-con side of the Republican foreign policy triangle. "His early reaction to the Cairo riots was neo-con, if you are looking for evidence of neo-conservatism. Recall that the embassy was tweeting a message that can be traced back to the philosophy expressed in Obama's 2009 Cairo speech. That speech was a critique of the neo-conservative approach to foreign policy. The embassy tweet was derived from that," Feaver said.
"Romney rejected that philosophy, whether expressed in the speech or the tweet, and his rejection was consistent with the neo-cons on how best to respond to the challenges in the region."
Feaver believes Romney does have the commander-in-chief credentials but he still has to provide more clarity on what his views are on a range of issues. "The Obama campaign would say he has flunked the test. That is palpably not true but it is true he has more work to do in fully explaining his foreign policy."
James Mann, a foreign policy analyst at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and author of books on Obama's foreign policy and the Rise of the Vulcans, about Bush's foreign policy advisers, agrees with Feaver that the policies owe more to Romney than his advisers. But he also blames Romney for listening too much to his political advisers rather than the foreign policy experts.
"One should worry far more about problems at the very top – Romney's own recent campaign statements on foreign policy and on the striking inexperience of the ticket – than about his list of advisers. The advisers include a mix of people from across the spectrum, and people have seized, too selectively and simplistically, on the presence of neoconservatives," Mann said.
"I think that, if Romney were elected, it's much more likely that Robert Zoellick would end up in a top-level position than John Bolton. And to my knowledge, some of Romney's more controversial positions – on Afghanistan and on declaring China a currency manipulator, for example – came from Romney and his political advisers, not from the campaign's foreign policy advisers, who were often kept in the dark."
Such has been Romney's reluctance to discuss foreign policy in public that there was barely any reference in his speech to the convention in Tampa, Florida, last month. He made no mention at all of Afghanistan in that speech, though he has in the past criticised Obama for setting a date for withdrawal, suggesting this encourages the Taliban to keep on fighting.
David Milne, a British-based academic, analyses Romney's foreign policy at length in a new article for International Affairs. He shares Mann's view that Romney is likely to pursue a pragmatic approach in office rather than line up with the neo-conservatives.
Milne, in an email exchange, acknowledged that Romney's response this week does not necessarily fit in with the pragmatism thesis.
"Rather, it's indicative of just how desperate his campaign has become in the wake of the conventions," he said. "Romney's approach up till now has been to say as little as presidentially possible about foreign policy and hammer away at the economy. It now appears that this will be insufficient, hence this cack-handed foray into foreign policy. It smacks of desperation."
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