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The presidential campaigns converged on New York City today. Mitt Romney and President Obama were both in town to talk foreign policy. The president addressed the annual meeting of the United Nations, and both candidates spoke at a gathering for the Clinton Global Initiative. As NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports, the Clinton event brought a welcome reprieve from the usual partisan wrangling.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Although Bill Clinton has become President Obama's most powerful surrogate on the campaign trail, the former president gave Governor Romney a gracious introduction, praising him for helping save the funding for the Clinton-era national service program AmeriCorps. And Romney, who is, in some ways, behind enemy lines here, returned the compliment.
MITT ROMNEY: If there's one thing we've learned in this election season, by the way, it is that a few words from Bill Clinton can do a man a lot of good.
LIASSON: And Romney added...
ROMNEY: All I got to do now is wait a couple of days for that bounce to happen, so...
LIASSON: Romney's remarks were a departure from his customary stump speech. They were positive, well written and well delivered. The ostensible subject was foreign aid, but the speech was really about capitalism itself.
ROMNEY: Free enterprise, as we know, has done more to bless humanity than any other economic system, not only because it's the only system that creates a prosperous middle class, but also because it's the only system where the individual enjoys the freedom to guide and build his or her life. Free enterprise can not only make us better off financially, it can make us better people.
LIASSON: If Mitt Romney has a core ideology, this is it. He told the story of a small businessman, the fruit vendor in Tunisia who sparked the Arab Spring when, Romney said, he was driven to extremes after corrupt bureaucrats took away his ability to work.
ROMNEY: Work. That has to be at the heart of our effort to help people build economies that can create jobs, young and old alike. Work builds self-esteem. It transforms minds from fantasy and fanaticism to reality and grounding.
LIASSON: Romney said that foreign aid should be tied to property rights and the rule of law. He said aid can leverage private investment, which can help end the suffering, anger and violence that's gripping the Middle East. When it was his turn to introduce President Obama, Bill Clinton was relatively restrained. He said when you introduce the president, you're supposed to say the president of the United States, and then shut up. But...
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: I just want to make one comment about this. I'm going to finish that speech I started in Charlotte.
LIASSON: That speech was considered to be a major reason for President Obama's post-convention bounce. President Obama's subject today was one of the Clinton Initiative targets.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It ought to concern every nation because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organized crime. I'm talking about the injustice, the outrage of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name: modern slavery.
LIASSON: The two candidates' speeches had none of the harsh partisan tone that's become the background music of the presidential campaign. Just yesterday, the Romney campaign was blasting the president for abandoning Israel. And today, it sent out a press release with the headline: Under Obama, Iran has become emboldened. But at the Clinton forum, all Romney had to say about Iran and its leader was this.
ROMNEY: We should not forget - and cannot forget - that not far from here, a voice of unspeakable evil and hatred has spoken out, threatening Israel and the entire civilized world. But we come together knowing that the bitterness of hate is no match for the strength of love.
LIASSON: Romney's only dig at President Obama was a quick recitation of his trademark line. I will never apologize for America, he said, in closing, and then Romney was off to begin a bus tour through the battleground state of Ohio. Mara Liasson, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.