By KASIE HUNT and STEVE PEOPLES, Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told veterans Wednesday that he'll make finding them jobs a priority as he accused Democratic President Barack Obama of weakening the nation's defenses.
Invoking the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — referring to "a plume of smoke on a clear blue morning" — Romney said protecting the country is the president's highest duty as he worked to pitch himself as a potential commander in chief. He told veterans meeting in Indiana that he's already started planning how to change veterans' services to help them during a Romney administration.
"I'm going to make reforming that agency a personal priority," Romney said, ticking through a series of policy promises. He said he would allow GI Bill beneficiaries to attend any public school at in-state tuition rates, encourage states to create a common system to recognize credentials veterans have earned through military training, and allow veterans to seek care from the active duty military's TRICARE health system if they can't get timely health services from the VA.
In Tampa, Fla., speakers at the Republican National Convention — including 2008 presidential nominee John McCain and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — planned to highlight Romney's foreign policy credentials, limited as they are.
Romney's foreign and defense experience is limited to several trips abroad as a private businessman and commanding the Massachusetts National Guard. During a trip abroad last month, Romney drew criticism for his remarks about Olympic security and how culture affected the Israeli and Palestinian economies.
Romney began his remarks to the American Legion by acknowledging the tropical storm churning over the Gulf Coast, flooding communities in Louisiana and threatening lives.
"I appreciate this invitation to join you on dry land this afternoon," Romney joked as he opened his remarks. "Our thoughts are of course with the people of the Gulf Coast states. Seven years ago today they were bracing for Hurricane Katrina."
Behind the scenes, GOP officials said Romney and his team were considering a visit to the hurricane strike zone. They said there were no current plans to change Romney's convention schedule and that no decisions had been made about a potential visit.
With rain beating down on New Orleans and flooding intensifying, eyes are turning to the battered Gulf Coast. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said Wednesday that officials might intentionally breach a levee in Plaquemines Parish to help deal with surging waters.
Romney's campaign has been keeping in touch with governors in the region, particularly Jindal. Campaign officials have also been in contact with the American Red Cross and the National Weather Service.
The storm is diverting attention from the festivities in Tampa, where Republicans officially nominated Romney for president on Tuesday. Romney officials and convention organizers have been holding conference calls about the weather every few hours for the past several days as they consider whether or how to change plans.
Even if the convention schedule doesn't change again, officials are acutely aware that they might need to adjust the tone of each day's celebration. They have, for example, discussed potentially raising money for hurricane victims during the gathering. As a model, they are relying in part on the example 2008 presidential nominee John McCain set with his convention in St. Paul, Minn. Republicans delayed that convention as a hurricane threatened the Gulf. Romney already has delayed his convention because of Isaac, holding an abbreviated session Monday and moving many major speakers to other days.
Hurricane Isaac was downgraded Wednesday from a Category 1 hurricane to a tropical storm — much weaker than the Category 5 Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans in 2005. But its slow-moving rains are threatening people and livelihoods. On Wednesday, rescuers in boats and trucks plucked a handful of people who became stranded by floodwaters in thinly populated areas of southeast Louisiana. Authorities feared many more could need help after a night of slashing rain and fierce winds that knocked out power to more than 600,000 households and businesses.
Romney had initially planned to appear in the convention hall via video from Indiana, speaking to attendees in conjunction with McCain. The campaign scrapped that plan Wednesday and Romney will instead return to Tampa. Officials wouldn't say if he planned to appear in person with McCain at the convention.
The newly minted nominee is set to deliver his address from the convention stage Thursday evening. Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said the speech would include some discussion of Romney's Mormon religion, a subject he hasn't frequently addressed on the campaign trail.
"This is a speech where he's going to talk a lot about what's informed his values, what's informed his outlook. Of course his faith is an important part of that," Madden said.
Hunt reported from Tampa, Fla.
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