WASHINGTON -- The deadly attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Libya propelled foreign policy into the forefront of an otherwise inward-looking presidential campaign on Wednesday and presented an unexpected test not only to the incumbent who must manage an international crisis, but also to the challenger whose response quickly came under fire.
While President Barack Obama dealt with the killings of an ambassador and three other Americans and deflected questions about his handling of the Arab world, Mitt Romney, the Republican seeking Obama's job, wasted little time in going on the attack, accusing the president of apologizing for American values and appeasing Islamic extremists.
"They clearly sent mixed messages to the world," Romney told reporters during a campaign swing through Florida.
But Romney came under withering criticism for distorting the chain of events overseas and appearing to try to gain political advantage from an episode that claimed American lives. A statement personally approved by Romney characterized an appeal for religious tolerance issued by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo as an apology for violence that did not actually occur until hours after it was released. Romney said the statement, which was disavowed by the administration, was "akin to apology, and I think was a severe miscalculation."
Obama fired back later in the day, accusing his opponent of politicizing a national tragedy. "Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later," he told CBS News for its "60 Minutes" program. "And as president, one of the things I've learned is you can't do that -- that, you know, it's important for you to make sure that the statements that you make are backed up by the facts, and that you've thought through the ramifications."
The harsh exchanges came after Romney, who had been criticized for not mentioning Afghanistan in his convention speech and was watching Obama build a modest lead in the polls, saw an opportunity to regain the offensive and draw a stark contrast with the president on foreign policy.
When aides on Tuesday showed Romney the statement from the embassy in Cairo, the candidate -- who devoted much of his 2010 book, "No Apology," to a withering critique of Obama for what he described as attempts to placate America's enemies -- reacted strongly to the language about "hurt" religious feelings, aides said.
The resulting statement took shape while Romney and a reduced staff contingent flew from Reno, Nev., to Jacksonville, Fla., from about 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, and the statement went out about an hour after he landed and signed off on it. Aides said it was drafted by committee -- a team effort by one group of advisers specializing in policy, the communications team and the strategy shop.
"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," the statement said.
The resulting episode was perhaps the most vivid confrontation over events abroad since the general election began taking shape and ended up putting Romney on the defensive as he sought to define his differences with the president and demonstrate his bona fides as a potential commander in chief.
Most Republican leaders in Congress declined to follow Romney's lead as he assailed the Obama administration, and by the end of the day, many analysts concluded that he had hurt himself by jumping in precipitously.
"I would probably have waited 12 or 24 hours and put out a more comprehensive statement," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. "When something tragic happens and a quick statement is made, it can be interpreted as political."
Romney's criticism fed into his larger theme of painting Obama as an apologist for the United States, and his team stuck by it. "While there may be differences of opinion regarding issues of timing," said one senior strategist, who asked not to be named, "I think everyone stands behind the critique of the administration, which we believe has conducted its foreign policy in a feckless manner."
The Romney team focused on a statement disavowing a controversial American-made, anti-Islam video that was issued by the Cairo Embassy around 12:30 p.m. local time on Tuesday -- before any attacks -- in an effort to pre-empt protests. "We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others," it said. The first protests in Cairo came about six hours later. Nothing had yet happened in Benghazi.
The White House, too, decided the embassy language went too far; officials privately told reporters it was not cleared in Washington. The embassy reaffirmed the statement even after protests began, posting a message on Twitter that it "still stands," but then tried to delete that message.
By Wednesday morning, when news of the four deaths became public, Romney's initial statement looked clumsy and badly timed to many, and Republicans like Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal columnist, and John Sununu, the former New Hampshire senator, publicly criticized it.
Republicans like Speaker John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, kept their distance from Romney's comments, instead sticking to expressions of resolve and sorrow.