NEW YORK — In a split-screen race for the presidency, Republican Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama were on their best campaign behavior in public Tuesday, all the while slashing away at each other in paid television ads.
In separate appearances in New York, they swapped criticism on foreign policy. But they did it politely, without mentioning each other by name.
Romney found fault with Obama's approach to education, but did so after paying a public compliment to Arne Duncan, who has the administration's Cabinet portfolio for the subject.
There was an outbreak of self-deprecating humor from Romney, as well, as he received a glowing introduction from former President Bill Clinton before speaking to the annual Clinton Global Initiative.
"If there's one thing we've learned this election season, it's that a few words from Bill Clinton can do any man a lot of good," joked the Republican candidate for the White House, referring to the former' president's strong speech on Obama's behalf at the Democratic National Convention earlier this month.
"All I got to do now is wait a few days for that bounce to happen," Romney quipped.
Joking or not, it was as close as the Republican challenger has come to publicly acknowledging recent polls showing Obama moving ahead in several battleground states and gaining ground in national surveys.
Cut to the television ads, and the political reality both campaigns are trying to create for voters in battleground states.
Of the five commercials the Obama campaign says it is airing most frequently, one accuses Romney and running mate Paul Ryan of backing a plan for Medicare that would raise out-of-pocket costs for seniors. Another says the Republican challenger favors tax cuts for millionaires that could be paid for by reducing existing tax breaks for education expenses.
A third says Obama, not Romney, has pushed back against China's unfair trade policies. A fourth asserts that part of Romney's personal fortune is invested in China and says he's never stood up to the country. "All he's done is send them our jobs," it says.
The Romney campaign listed six ads currently airing, four of which criticize Obama.
"Dear Daughter. Welcome to America," says the announcer in a commercial that shows a young baby. "Your share of Obama's debt is over $50,000."
Two spots feature coal miners accusing the administration of pursuing policies that go after their industry. "Obama said he was going to bankrupt any new power plants that opened up ... He's keeping his promise," says a miner shown in one. "I've got two young grandsons. I'm scared for their futures, let alone mine."
A fourth accuses Obama of failing to "stand up to China." ".... His policies cost us 2 million jobs," it says.
In the world not made up of television commercials, one report released during the day showed consumer confidence climbing to the highest level since February. A second report said home prices increased in July as sales rose and foreclosures fell.
Taken together, that amounted to encouraging news for the president, given that the slow-growing economy and 8.1 percent national unemployment are the public's top issues in the race for the White House.
Whatever the economic news itself, voters increasingly say the country is heading in the right direction. In an Associated Press-GfK poll taken at mid-month, 48 percent of registered voters said they expect the economy to improve in the next 12 months, compared to only 41 percent who said so in a survey in August.
Additionally, 41 percent of registered voters said in this month's poll that the nation is heading in the right direction, up from 34 percent saying the same in August.
Obama's handling of the economy, still tepid, is better than it has been. The latest AP-GfK poll finds 48 percent of registered voters approve of the president's handling of the economy, while 49 percent disapprove. In June, 56 percent disapproved and 43 percent approved.
Romney spoke first during the day, speaking to Clinton's organization.
He said the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya two weeks ago was caused by a terrorist attack, something Obama has refrained from saying.
"Many Americans are troubled by the developments in the Middle East," Romney said. "Syria has witnessed the killings of tens of thousands of people. The president of Egypt is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. ... And Iran is moving toward nuclear weapons capability.
"We feel that we are at the mercy of events, rather than shaping events," he added, although he did not overtly criticize Obama's foreign policy, as he did on Monday.
Romney also said if he is elected, he will create "prosperity pacts" in the Middle East, private-public partnerships designed to remove barriers to free markets around the region. He said developing countries would receive U.S. assistance "focused on developing the institutions of liberty, the rule of law and property rights."
Obama, in a speech later in the morning to the U.N. General Assembly, said the recent assaults on U.S. citizens in Libya "were attacks on America" and called on world leaders to join in confronting the root causes of the rage across the Muslim world.
But in a slap at Romney, Obama said "let us remember that this is a season of progress" in the Arab World, where autocratic leaders have been deposed in several countries.
In another jab, he said, "Among Israelis and Palestinians, the future must not belong to those who turn their backs on peace."
Obama didn't mention it, but Romney says on a videotape that recently came to light that "the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace. The pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish."
Espo reported from Washington. AP White House correspondent Ben Feller in New York and Associated Press writer Philip Elliott in Washington contributed to this report.