WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney criticized President Barack 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," Romney said on the CBS News program 60 Minutes on Sunday.
Obama, speaking in a separate interview on the same program, said that he speaks frequently with Netanyahu and described Israel as "one of our closest allies in the region."
He also challenged Romney, who has accused Obama 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, he should say so," Obama said.
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.
Romney tried once again to undo some of the damage done by remarks to a group of wealthy donors recorded in May and released last week, in which he said 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.
Romney said he was essentially tied with Obama and the campaign did not need a turnaround.
"That's not the campaign," he said of his contentious remarks. "That was me, right?"
He added: "I've got a very effective campaign. It's doing a very good job. But not everything I say is elegant."
Romney said he would consider means-testing Social Security benefits for future retirees, and he distanced 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," Romney said of Ryan. "I'm putting it back into Medicare, and I'm the guy running for president, not him."
Romney said on a plane to Colorado on Sunday night that the debates would offer him the chance to correct "inaccurate" portrayals in Obama campaign ads of his positions on the auto bailout, taxes and abortion.
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," Obama said. "Haven't even come close in some cases."