By DONNA CASSATA, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Mitt Romney is a Republican standard-bearer largely standing alone in his rush to criticize President Barack Obama after violent attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya.
Romney's quick swing at Obama — as the crisis was unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa — was glaringly at odds with the more statesmanlike responses Wednesday from GOP leaders in Congress to the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others Americans in Benghazi and to the U.S. Embassy breach in Cairo.
The old notion that politics stops at the water's edge still resonates in some quarters in Washington, if not in the presidential campaign.
"U.S. leaders should unite in redoubling our efforts in the Maghreb and Middle East, practicing the kind of stout diplomacy exemplified by Ambassador Stevens," said Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., who mourned not only a diplomat but his former aide on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Hours earlier, the Romney campaign had seized on a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo condemning anti-Muslim religious incitement, casting the call for tolerance as another Obama apology for America even though it came before the protests turned violent. A defiant Romney later upped the charge against the Obama administration.
"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," Romney told reporters Wednesday morning.
Obama not only hit back, he focused on the starkly different responses from Romney and other Republicans to press his campaign argument that the former Massachusetts governor is untested and will return the nation to a foreign policy of "blustering and blundering that cost America dearly."
"Gov. Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later," Obama said in an interview with CBS News.
The president added: "I think if you look at how most Republicans have reacted, most elected officials, they reacted responsibly. Waiting to find out the facts before they talked, making sure that our No. 1 priority is the safety, the security of American personnel. It appears that Gov. Romney didn't have his facts right."
The Romney response reflects a political reality. Roughly eight weeks to the election, Romney is under pressure from some conservatives to provide a more detailed vision of what his Republican presidency would look like, with more specifics on tax cuts and spending. Simply making the race a referendum on Obama and the slow-moving economy isn't sufficient, conservatives complain.
Romney's foreign policy broadside also comes as polls show the president opening an ever-so-slight lead in what has been a deadlocked race overall. The Republican has been on the defensive over his failure to mention U.S. troops overseas in his convention speech, which gave the Obama campaign an opening that it exploited at the Democrats' national gathering.
Romney advisers saw a need to show a candidate forceful on foreign policy, responding swiftly and decisively as voters consider who should be the next commander in chief.
National security has been one of the few issues where Obama gets high marks from Americans after the killing of Osama bin Laden and successes against al-Qaida, but the administration has struggled with the downside of the Arab Spring. In a further complication this week, the White House scrambled to quell talk of a deep rift with Israel over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's calls for Washington to spell out what would provoke a U.S.-led military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Sensing an opening, Romney aides saw the statement from Cairo and various tweets from the U.S. Embassy and figured they had an opportunity to criticize Obama while ensuring Romney made it into news stories, according to a Republican official advising Romney's campaign. Aides later recognized that Romney should have waited longer to get the details before reacting, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering Romney's campaign.
Said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.: "Gov. Romney in the big picture is right. ... I would have waited 12, 24 hours and put out a more comprehensive statement."
Ensuring a candidate is part of the latest political discourse often runs counter to international crises.
"National security issues often require time to unfold that is counter to our win-the-minute news cycle now," said Gordon Johndroe, a top White House aide in George W. Bush's administration. "Events overseas do not unfold in a way that is convenient for our win-the-hour news cycle. Events happen quickly, but the information at first is very vague and uncertain. ... It takes a while for information to come through and you have to be very careful and cautious when responding."
As the nominee, Romney should receive classified briefings on U.S. intelligence, but administration officials said that hasn't been arranged yet.
"The intelligence community is working closely with the Romney campaign to finalize the logistics for the candidate briefings," said Shawn Turner, spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Romney's actions are certain to draw attention to his foreign policy pronouncements. His statement that Russia is the "No. 1 geopolitical foe" prompted former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Bush appointee, to respond on MSNBC: "Come on, Mitt, think. That isn't the case."
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that Romney's comment made Russia feel justified in opposing U.S. missile defense plans in Europe.
Democrats pounced on his embassy criticism, with some recalling Romney's overseas trip and slight of Britain over its security preparations for the Olympics.
"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. You've got to have a little prudence and a little common sense, not make the situation worse," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said these are "matters of international consequence. We have a president. We've got a State Department. We've got a military and we have one commander in chief. Let him command."
Pressed to explain Romney's criticism, some of the candidate's allies in Congress struggled to defend him while others were noticeably silent.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Obama "correctly tightened the security overseas." Asked about Romney's remarks, he declined to answer.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said the statement from the Cairo embassy was indicative of an administration that apologizes too often. Blunt insisted that Romney had no choice but to comment further.
"If you've already made a statement about previous events, there'd 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," he said.
And a few in Congress echoed Romney's complaint that Obama is an apologist.
"Again and again under President Obama we have met threats and thugs with apologies and concessions," said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., in the second of two statements. His first made no mention of Obama.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., likened the embassy statement to a "judge telling the woman that got raped, 'You asked for it because of the way you dressed.' OK, that's the same thing. America, you should be the ones to apologize. You should have known this would happen. You should have done what, I don't know, but it's all your fault."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Donna Cassata covers defense and foreign policy on Capitol Hill.
Associated Press writers Kimberly Dozier, Steve Peoples and Philip Elliott contributed to this report.
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