Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney is trying to turn the campaign focus back to the economy as he heads into the party nominating convention next week, hoping to put behind him a difficult stretch that involved heated debate on hot-button social issues where the party is less than sure-footed.
Reviving unfulfilled plans of presidents and presidential candidates dating back decades, Romney pledged to make the U.S., Canada and Mexico energy independent by 2020.
"This is not some pie in the sky kind of thing," Romney told voters in Hobbs, New Mexico, the heart of the southwestern state's oil and gas industry. "This is a real achievable objective."
The shift to energy and jobs marked an obvious attempt to change the subject after Romney's campaign to unseat President Barack Obama was badly knocked off stride this week. Romney was caught up in a national political storm over the remarks by a fellow Republican a candidate for the Senate from Missouri about women's bodies being able to prevent pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape."
In a bid to distance themselves from Rep. Todd Akin and his remarks, Romney, his vice presidential running mate Rep. Paul Ryan and an assortment of top Republicans said the Senate candidate should quit the race. Akin has refused to leave the contest and still has the support of a large sector of the evangelical Christian base in the Republican party.
The uproar threatened to weaken Republican attempts to show a unified front at their national convention that opens on Monday and will conclude with the formal nomination of Romney and Ryan later in the week.
To stifle that threat, Ryan called for Akin to step aside even though the Missouri Republican was defending his stand that abortion should be illegal even in the case of rape. Ryan shares that view and like Akin, has repeatedly sought passage of legislation in the House of Representatives that would outlaw abortion, even for victims of rape and incest.
Romney, who backed abortion rights when he successfully ran for governor of Massachusetts, a moderate state, now opposes the procedure but would leave it available in cases of rape, incest or to protect the life of the mother.
Ryan issued a statement Wednesday saying Romney's position would hold sway.
As he tries to direct the debate elsewhere, Romney promoted energy proposals Thursday aimed at creating what he said would be more than 3 million new jobs. He also called for opening more areas for drilling off the coast of two politically critical states, Virginia and North Carolina. That is part of the wealthy businessman-turned politician's plan for reviving the struggling U.S. economy.
Those issues were seen as key to a potential Romney victory over Obama on Nov. 6. The incumbent's campaign, however, has been successful this summer in steering the debate away from the economy and toward questions about Romney's record as co-founder of the Bain Capital private equity firm from which he amassed a quarter-billion dollar fortune.
Obama also managed to distract from the lackluster economy by focusing on Romney's refusal to release more than two years of his federal income tax records, raising questions about what percentage of his income the Republican candidate actually paid to the government.
More recently, before the storm over Akin's remarks, both sides in the race were battling each other over other social issues like welfare to the poor and government-sponsored Medicare health insurance for Americans over age 65. Romney has signed on to a Ryan plan that would turn the program into one in which the government gave Medicare-eligible Americans a fixed payment to help in buying insurance from private companies.
Polls show that is an unpopular plan, especially among senior citizens.
Obama's campaign also began a new push on the economy Thursday with a television advertisement featuring former President Bill Clinton. In the ad, Clinton speaks directly to the camera and says voters face a "clear choice" over which candidate will return the nation to full employment.
"We need to keep going with his plan," Clinton says of Obama in the ad, which will run in eight battleground states.
The former president also draws a connection between Obama's policies for strengthening the middle class and the nation's economic prosperity during his time in office. Obama's campaign has been seeking to use Clinton as a reminder to voters that the economy was strong the last time a Democrat held the White House.
Romney was traveling from Arkansas to New Mexico on Thursday to discuss what the candidate said was a comprehensive energy plan that would result in more than $1 trillion in revenue for federal, state and local governments, plus millions of jobs.
The most significant aspects of Romney's plans hinge on opening up more areas for offshore oil drilling, including in the mid-Atlantic, where it is currently banned. Romney also wants to give states the power to establish all forms of energy production on federal lands, a significant shift in current policy that could face strong opposition in Congress.
The Romney plan makes little mention of wind energy, which Obama has pushed heavily in states such as Iowa and Colorado. Obama has pressed Congress to extend a tax credit for producers of wind energy, an approach that Romney opposes.
The presumptive Republican nominee has significant ties to big oil and raised at least $7 million from industry executives this week during fundraisers in Texas.
Romney's campaign says his strategy would achieve energy independence by 2020.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith called Romney's energy plan "backward."
"This isn't a recipe for energy independence," Smith said. "It's just another irresponsible scheme to help line the pockets of big oil while allowing the U.S to fall behind and cede the clean energy sector to China."
Obama told donors in New York Wednesday night that under his administration, dependence on foreign oil has gone below 50 percent for the first time in 13 years.