Mitt Romney took a softer tone on foreign policy at a rally in Northern Virginia on Thursday, telling the crowd the world needs strong American leadership but avoiding any references to Wednesday's argument about the president apologizing for America.
"The world needs American leadership, the Middle East needs American leadership," he said.
Romney made only a passing reference to the conflicts in Libya and Egypt, a day after he came under fire for accusing the president of failing to have a strong reaction after the U.S. Consulates in Benghazi and Cairo were stormed by protesters Tuesday night. Four American diplomats, including envoy Christopher Stevens, were killed in the Libyan attack.
"Now we are in mourning. We've lost four of our diplomats across the world. We are thinking about their families and those that they've left behind -- what a tragedy," Romney said, before being interrupted by a protester in the crowd who yelled, "Why are you politicizing Libya?"
The crowd began chanting "USA!" to drown him out.
"I would offer a moment of silence, but one gentleman doesn't want to be silent," Romney said.
The GOP presidential nominee issued a statement Tuesday night accusing the Obama administration of defending those who attacked the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. The protests there were ignited by an American video that mocked the Islam prophet Mohammed, and the embassy condemned "the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims."
On Wednesday, after the administration confirmed the death of the four diplomats in Libya, Romney held a press conference and doubled down on his criticism.
"It's a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values," Romney said. "When our grounds are being attacked and being breached, the first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation." The White House has disavowed the original statement from the embassy in Cairo.
On Thursday, Romney avoided references to the controversy and instead made his case for a strong military -- comments that undoubtedly bear more weight in Northern Virginia, home to the Pentagon and thousands of people who work in defense-related fields. He also assailed impending military budget cuts and said the president would reduce military capacity to the point the nation could fight only one war at a time.
"A strong America is essential to the world. It's essential to us and to our future but also to the world," he continued. "As we watch the world today, sometimes it seems that we're at the mercy of events instead of shaping events, and a strong America is essential to shape events. And a strong America, by the way, depends on a strong military."
Ken Stulik, 47, an IT consultant from Clifton, Va., said Romney could have a leg up in the debates "if he accentuates the fact that it is the failure of this administration to take positive, corrective or preventive action. He's got to frame it the right way."
However, Lisa Laclede, 55, of Fairfax, indicated Romney should have waited until the president spoke before responding.
"It's like shooting off an e-mail before you think," she said. "Sometimes you just need to sit on it."
Romney is in a dead heat with Obama in Virginia, according to RealClearPolitics. Romney trails Obama nationwide, 50% to 44%, according to Gallup.
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