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 a film that ridiculed Islam's Prophet Muhammed.
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.
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 obscure 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 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 was expected to address the killings during comments at his campaign office in Jacksonville, Fla., Wednesday morning.
He 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.
The foreign policy dispute came after Tuesday's 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks led the presidential campaign teams to hold off on direct confrontations and yank negative TV ads. Both Romney and Obama offered extensive praise and expressions of sympathy for those who died in the attacks and for their loved ones.
Yet Romney, in address to a meeting of the National Guard, indirectly but clearly drew distinctions with Obama. After declaring that the day was not the proper moment to address differences with the president, Romney took issue with threatened cuts in defense and the handling of disability claims and called for more assertive international leadership.
"I wish I could say the world is less dangerous now," he said.
Obama, for his part, offered election-year reminders that "al-Qaida's leadership has been devastated and Osama bin Laden will never threaten us again."
Said the president: "Our country is safer and our people are resilient."
Pickler reported from Washington.