JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Republican challenger Mitt Romney sought to portray President Barack Obama as weak on foreign policy Wednesday after violent attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in the Middle East. Obama steered clear of the political fight, declaring as commander in chief that "justice will be done" in response to the deaths of four Americans in Libya.
Romney used the attacks as an opening to assail Obama during an appearance in swing state Florida, accusing the administration of sending "mixed signals to the world" and failing to lead in the face of violence.
Obama avoided engaging his campaign rival during an appearance in the White House Rose Garden with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Addressing the nation and the world, he said there was "absolutely no justification for this kind of senseless violence — none." He was responding to the Tuesday night attack that killed U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three American members of his staff.
Romney had jumped to criticize Obama as the attacks were being waged on U.S. diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya. Angry mobs attacked the facilities to protest an obscure film by a California filmmaker that ridiculed Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo initially issued a statement that criticized the film. Romney, trailing Obama in public opinion polls on their leadership on foreign policy, quickly sent out his own statement before news of the diplomats' deaths, saying the administration's statement seemed to "sympathize with those who waged the attacks." Romney incorrectly said the statement by the embassy in Cairo came "when our grounds are being attacked and being breached" — it actually was issued before the demonstrations planned in the neighborhood entered the compound and tore down the U.S. flag.
Romney advisers said it was difficult to follow the chronology of events in Libya late Tuesday — especially because he is not yet receiving the intelligence briefings that are customary relatively soon after a nominating convention. Republican officials say he has been relying on his foreign policy advisers and news reports.
But Romney advisers maintain he was correct in immediately condemning the violence against Americans — an effort to distinguish himself from the president's tone, which Romney calls apologist on some foreign policy matters.
As news of the deaths came from the White House Wednesday morning, the Romney team scrambled to change a speech before supporters in his Jacksonville, Fla., campaign headquarters to a more somber event. The supporters were ushered from the room and four flags were set up behind the podium from which Romney read a brief statement mentioning Egypt and contending that Obama is a weak leader. He then invited questions from reporters, who asked if it was an appropriate tone to take given the deaths and that the White House said it disagreed with the embassy statement. Romney stood firm.
"The president takes responsibility not just for the words that come from his mouth, but also for the words that come from his ambassadors, from his administration, from his embassies, from his State Department," Romney said. "They clearly sent mixed messages to the world. The statement that came from the administration — and the embassy is the administration — the statement that came from the administration was a statement which is akin to apology. And I think was a severe miscalculation."
Obama did not mention Romney and instead focused on the diplomats who were lost. He ignored reporters' shouted questions asking him to respond to Romney, keeping himself out of the fray and leaving the job to other Democrats.
"Gov. Romney's comments are about as inappropriate as anything I have ever seen at this kind of a moment," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry. "They are flat wrong, but they demonstrate an insensitivity and a lack of judgment about what is happening right now. To make those kinds of statements before you even know the facts, before families have even been notified, before things have played out, is really not just inexperienced, it's irresponsible, it's callous, it's reckless. And I think he ought to apologize, and I don't think he knows what he's talking about, frankly."
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., suggested Romney has a pattern in mishandling international affairs, comparing his "inappropriate" response to the tragedy to his questioning of British security measures for the Olympics, which angered officials in London.
"There comes a time when you've got to use some judgment, whether you're speaking to the British about the Olympics or you're reacting to the death of the ambassador in Libya," Durbin said in an interview after emerging from a classified briefing on Syria and Iran. "You've got to have a little prudence and a little common sense, not make the situation worse."
None of the senior Republicans in Congress joined in Romney's criticism of the administration, although some defended their presidential nominee when asked whether his response was appropriate. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said Romney's response was "exactly right," assuming he was responding to the embassy statement and not the subsequent events.
"The idea that somehow you're a candidate for president you shouldn't be talking about this, I think is foolish," Blunt said in an interview. "If you've already made a statement about previous events, they're be no reason to walk away from that statement because things accelerated to a worse series of events than the one you were commenting on."
The Mideast attacks pivoted the election to foreign policy, an area where the president who commanded the mission that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden has a lead in polling even though Republicans traditionally have an edge.
"As I've watched over the past three and a half years, the president has had some successes. He's had some failures," Romney said. "It's a hit-or-miss approach, but it has not been based upon sound foreign policy."
Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, said at an appearance in his home state of Wisconsin that in the face of such violence "we are reminded that the world needs American leadership and the best guarantee of peace is American strength."
"We face a big decision in this country," Ryan said. "The decisions we make are profound, and they will last not just for four years but for a generation."
Vice President Joe Biden told voters in Ohio that there "is no place in a civilized world for senseless murder like occurred last night."
"The task of a president is not only to defend our interests and causes and the cause of freedom abroad, it is also to build a nation here at home to which the entire world can look to inspire," Biden said. "Whether we do that and how we do that, that is literally the essence of the choice we face in this presidential election. It really is that basic. Foreign policy is not some sidelight to all of this."
Nedra Pickler reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Donna Cassata and Philip Elliott in Washington and Steve Peoples in Boston contributed to this report.
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