By DAVID ESPO and JIM KUHNHENN, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — On a day mixing somber ceremony with campaign clamor, President Barack Obama on Friday eulogized four Americans killed in a suspected terrorist attack on a diplomatic post overseas while Republicans pledged a tougher foreign policy to confront U.S. enemies.
"They didn't simply embrace the American ideal. They lived it," Obama said of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others who died when the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was overrun this week. Four flag-draped containers holding the remains rested nearby, attended by Marines as the president vowed, "We will bring to justice those who took them from us."
Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney and running mate Paul Ryan also paid tribute to Stevens and fellow Americans Sean Smith, Glen A. Doherty and Tyrone S. Woods. But their text for the day added disapproval of an American foreign policy that they said lacked resolve.
With Romney facing criticism from some quarters that he had fumbled the issue earlier in the week, Ryan spoke the sharpest words. Pointing to recent events throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, he said, "We know who America is dealing with in these attacks. They are extremists who operate by violence and intimidation. ....Amid all these threats and dangers, what we do not see is steady, consistent American leadership."
The day's events unfolded a little more than seven weeks before Election Day, and as a spate of national and battleground-state polls pointed to modest gains for the president following the two parties' political conventions. Both campaigns say they expect the race to be decided by eight or nine states where neither man at this point has a decisive advantage.
Obama set a campaign trip next week to Wisconsin, Ryan's home state and one that Romney is working to turn competitive. The president won handily in 2008, but it still faces unemployment of 7.3 percent, a little below the national average in a slow-to-recover national economy
Like all presidents since the dawn of the television age, Obama is often at the center of moments of national mourning, and he readily assumed the role of consoler-in-chief for families of the four slain Americans. The ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base had little precedent — White House aides pointed to only one other like it, in 1998 — and when it was over, the bodies were taken to Dover Air Force Base where most of those killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been flown.
The ceremony had all the sad pomp that could be mustered.
Each transfer case was carried off the plane by seven Marines as Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta watched silently. Two of Clinton's Republican predecessors, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, also attended in a bipartisan show of respect for the dead and their survivors.
Moments after the ceremony ended, Romney told a campaign audience in Painesville, Ohio, that he had delayed his speech to watch on television. He led the crowd in a moment of silence "in recognition of the bloodshed for freedom."
Earlier in the day, at a fundraiser in New York, he accused Obama of failing to schedule a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, due in the United States later this month. He called it an "extraordinarily confusing and troubling decision," and added, "There have been over the years, confusing messages sent by the president of the United States to the world."
The White House has denied reports that Obama decided not to hold a meeting with the Israeli leader.
For the day, the campaign-long struggle over the economy was shunted to the sidelines but hardly suspended.
One day after Romney unveiled a television ad accusing Obama of "failing American workers" and ignoring unfair trade practices by China, the president's campaign responded in kind.
"He invested in firms that specialized in relocating jobs to low-wage countries like China," said the announcer in a commercial, referring to Bain Capital, the private equity firm Romney founded.
"Even today, part of Romney's fortune is invested in China," the narrator added. "Romney's never stood up to China. All he's ever done is send them our jobs."