JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Republican Mitt Romney slammed the Obama administration's handling of foreign affairs after attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya as foreign policy pushed to the front of the presidential campaign.
Romney branded the administration's early response to the attacks as "disgraceful" in a statement the former Massachusetts governor released before confirmation that the American ambassador had been killed.
Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt said the campaign was "shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Gov. Romney would choose to launch a political attack." The president planned to make a statement Wednesday morning in a White House Rose Garden appearance with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three American members of his staff were killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi. Libyan officials said the attack was carried out by protesters angry over an obscure film by a California filmmaker that ridiculed Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
Romney pounced on news of the attacks, trying to seize an opportunity to criticize President Barack Obama on an area where voters see him as a stronger leader. Polling shows Americans trust Obama more on foreign policy and national security — areas where Republicans traditionally have an edge in public opinion. An appearance scheduled Wednesday morning before his Jacksonville, Fla., campaign office was quickly changed, with supporters gathered to hear the candidate speak quickly ushered out so Romney could take questions from reporters in response to the Libyan developments.
But voters — and Romney's campaign — have been more focused on the economy than security in this election. And Romney gave Obama an opening for criticism when he didn't offer a salute to the troops or reference the war in Afghanistan during his speech to the Republican National Convention two weeks ago.
The question has been whether a crisis in Iran or Syria could create a campaign issue for Obama, but instead the attacks sparked by the film has brought an unexpected crisis. Romney jumped on the development to argue Obama isn't leading on foreign policy. It's unclear whether the ambassador's death will catch the attention of voters rather than the war in Afghanistan or Obama's leadership in the death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Obama was more cautious in responding to the attacks as the situation evolved. The White House says Obama was informed of the Libya attacks Tuesday afternoon during his weekly meeting with Pentagon leaders and told later in the evening that Stevens was unaccounted for. Obama learned of the ambassador's death Wednesday morning, the White House said.
The situation threatened to get worse, with U.S. embassies in the Libyan border nations of Algeria and Tunisia warning Americans to avoid crowded places where even peaceful protests planned for Wednesday could turn violent.
On Capitol Hill, House and Senate Republicans mostly steered clear of the political criticism that Romney leveled at Obama over foreign policy, focusing on the lives lost in the Egyptian and Libyan attacks and imploring the two governments to condemn the incidents and protect American diplomatic missions.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee who has traveled to Libya and met with Stevens, said: "The Libyan and Egyptian people should understand that the U.S. shares their commitment to building more hopeful and prosperous nations. However, if left unchecked, violent attacks like these against our embassies and diplomats will lead Libya and Egypt down a dark path and rob them of their hopes of a more prosperous and democratic future. "
The president responded with a written statement condemning "this outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi." He said he has directed administration officials "to provide all necessary resources to support the security of our personnel in Libya, and to increase security at our diplomatic posts around the globe."
Romney said in his earlier statement that he was outraged by the attacks and the administration's early response seemed to sympathize with the attackers. "It's disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks."
Obama was heading west Wednesday, to Nevada, where he planned to hit Romney and vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan with charges of secrecy. The Obama campaign says the two Republicans are refusing to tell voters how they could pay for tax cuts that disproportionately help the wealthy without having to gut deductions for middle-class taxpayers.
An Obama campaign ad making that point will start running in Iowa, Virginia, Nevada and Ohio. Those four states, plus Florida, New Hampshire and Colorado, continue to draw the most campaign time and money, with others states looming on the margins as possible toss-ups.
One of those is Wisconsin, home state of the Republican Rep. Ryan, who will be holding a town hall in Green Bay, Wis., on Wednesday as the race in the state appears to tighten. For the first time, Obama's campaign was airing TV ads in Wisconsin, starting Wednesday. They come after Romney started running his own spots there Sunday.
Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden will also campaign in Ohio on Wednesday. Romney was splitting Florida duty with his wife, Ann, who was holding her own rally in Largo; former President Bill Clinton, meanwhile, was to campaign for Obama in Orlando.
Pickler reported from Washington.