WASHINGTON - Republican Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama are trading tough words over the handling of foreign attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in the Middle East, injecting foreign policy into a presidential campaign that has focused on a sour economy.
Romney accused the Obama administration of showing weakness in the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three American members of his staff. Romney blasted the initial statement from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo as disgraceful and "akin to apology," adding later, "It's never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans and to defend our values."
However, the embassy statement came before the protesters had breached the embassy's walls and was not an apology but an affirmation of the American policy of religious tolerance and respect. A statement by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton minutes before Romney's was released condemned the attack in Libya and said there was no justification for such violent acts.
Obama made a somber statement in the Rose Garden condemning the attacks and announcing plans to deploy additional Marines at diplomatic posts overseas. In an interview with CBS News' "60 Minutes" later in the day, Obama said the episode showed Romney's penchant for having "a tendency to shoot first and aim later."
"It appears that Gov. Romney didn't have his facts right," Obama said. That night, during a rally in Las Vegas, the president said he had a message for the rest of the world: "No act of terror will dim the light of the values that we proudly shine on the rest of the world, and no act of violence will shake the resolve of the United States of America."
The four diplomats were killed Tuesday as protesters overran and burned the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. In a separate incident, the American Embassy in Cairo was breached by protesters, and the nation's flag was ripped down, although no deaths were reported. And on Thursday, protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy compound in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, tearing down and burning the U.S. flag.
U.S. officials are investigating whether the attack in Libya was a terrorist strike planned to mark the 11th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Initial reports were that both the Libya and Egypt events had been motivated by anger over an anti-Muslim film made in the United States.
Obama made separate calls Tuesday evening to the presidents of Libya and Egypt, urging them to work with the U.S. to ensure the safety of diplomatic personnel. Obama and Libyan President Mohamed Magariaf vowed to work together to identify the Benghazi attackers and "bring them to justice," the White House said in a press release.
Obama told Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi "he rejects efforts to denigrate Islam, but underscored that there is never any justification for violence against innocents and acts that endanger American personnel and facilities," the White House said.
The Obama and Romney exchange came with less than eight weeks remaining in the tight presidential race, a campaign that has remained close for months and is being fiercely waged in fewer than 10 battleground states.
Economic concerns could play a more prominent role Thursday, when Romney appears at a rally in the Virginia suburbs outside Washington, D.C., and Obama holds an event in Colorado's Denver suburbs. Obama carried both states in 2008, but they remain up for grabs and heavily contested by both campaigns.
The Federal Reserve was expected to announce Thursday whether it plans to take new steps to jumpstart the U.S. economy. Many anticipate that the Fed will release a third round of bond purchases aimed at easing long-term interest rates and spurring borrowing and spending.
The economy has been the top issue throughout the race, with recent surveys showing Romney with a narrow advantage over the president when it comes to plans for reducing the nation's unemployment rate of 8.1 percent. On foreign policy, Obama has held an edge on which candidate is better suited to handle international affairs.
Romney, on Wednesday, defended his decision to issue his criticism Tuesday night, at a time it was not yet known that Stevens had been killed. Asked if he would have done so had he known about the deaths, he said, "I'm not going to take hypotheticals about what would have been known and so forth."
Some Republicans with experience in national security matters questioned the GOP candidate's handling of the events and top Republican leaders in Congress did not echo Romney's remarks. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Obama "correctly tightened the security overseas." Asked about Romney's remarks, he declined to answer and walked toward his office in the Capitol.
Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio defended Romney on CBS "This Morning," though he acknowledged he was unaware the Cairo embassy's initial statement came before protesters there had breached the embassy walls.
Romney "just said the American government ought not to be issuing an apology; we ought to be condemning these attacks," Portman said.
"No, I was not aware that it (the embassy's statement) was issued before there were any attacks," Portman said. "But I still think it implies that somehow these attacks could be justified by a video that the U.S. government had nothing to do with, that came out in July."
Romney's account didn't mesh completely with events in Cairo.
The statement that he referred to as akin to apology was issued by the embassy in Cairo at midday Tuesday at a time the staff was aware of still-peaceful demonstrations in the area nearby. The mob breached the compound's walls and tried to burn a U.S. flag about four or five hours later.
"The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims - as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions," the embassy said, noting that religious freedom is a cornerstone of American democracy.
Romney added that the White House later "distanced itself" from the statement, saying it hadn't been cleared by senior officials in Washington. "That reflects the mixed signals they're sending to the world," he said.
Obama said in the "60 Minutes" interview that the embassy was trying to "cool the situation down" and it was released "from folks on the ground who are potentially in danger."
"My tendency is to cut folks a little bit of slack when they're in that circumstance, rather than try to question their judgment from the comfort of a campaign office," Obama said.
He added that as president, "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."
Babington reported from Denver. AP White House correspondent Ben Feller in Dulles, Va., contributed to this report.