A presidential campaign that has been all about the economy shifted suddenly to foreign policy Wednesday following the murderous attack on U.S. diplomats in Libya, giving President Obama an advantage over a challenger who has yet to start receiving national security briefings.
By criticizing Obama's response to the killings and a violent protest in Egypt, Republican challenger Mitt Romney opened himself up to warnings from officials in both parties that politics should "end at the water's edge," in the words of former GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman.
While Obama was condemning the attacks, vowing justice against the perpetrators and consoling the victims' families and State Department colleagues, Romney doubled down on a statement he initially released Tuesday night accusing the administration of sympathizing with the attackers. His accusations were aimed at a statement issued from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Tuesday, in the midst of the protest there, which sought to soothe anger among Muslims at a video blaspheming the prophet Mohammed. The statement condemned rhetoric that "hurt the religious feelings of Muslims."
"I think it's a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values," Romney said Wednesday during a news conference in Florida.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Committee on Intelligence, said the foreign policy contrast is "probably a fair debate to have in this upcoming election." But now, he said, is a time to focus on "the fact that we lost a United States ambassador."
Said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass.: "This is one of those moments when Americans must unite as Americans. It is exactly the wrong time to throw political punches."
After holding its fire for most of the day, the White House later released part of Obama's interview with CBS' 60 Minutes in which he said Romney "didn't have his facts right."
"Gov. Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later," Obama said. "And as president, one of the things I've learned is you can't do that, that it's important for you to make sure that the statements you make are backed up by the facts, and that you've thought through the ramifications before you make them."
Unless the situation in the Middle East spins out of control, the attack and Obama's denunciation and actions in response could strengthen his hand, experts say, since he has successfully waged war on al-Qaeda throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa.
"You have a Republican challenger who is behind in the polls, who is looking for an opportunity to drive a wedge and to create a sense that Obama is the apologizer he's weak," says Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator and adviser to six secretaries of State from both parties. "Unless it is validated day after day after day, it is not going to provide him much leverage and room to make the case."
For Obama, the attacks offer an opportunity to show strong leadership, that most prized presidential trait. His administration took action immediately in sending about 200 Marines and two warships to Libya.
The Romney campaign circulated talking points to surrogates later Wednesday morning, advising them to talk about the need for American leadership to ensure that events in the Middle East don't "spin out of control."
Contributing: Catalina Camia
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