By Julian Pecquet - 09/12/12 11:03 PM EDT
The murder of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans irrupted into the presidential election campaign Wednesday, with the candidates sharply criticizing each other’s response to the incident.
The fatal attack by a mob in Benghazi, which might have been a coordinated terrorist assault, played directly into an existing undercurrent of the battle for the White House, with Mitt Romney hurling allegations of weakness, appeasement and “apology” at the incumbent, and President Obama countering that his challenger lacks the experience and judgment to be chief executive.
“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,” Romney said in a statement released shortly before the end of the day Tuesday.
The Republican doubled down on Wednesday, telling reporters in Florida that Obama had sent a mixed message.
“They clearly sent mixed messages to the world and the administration, and the embassy is the administration and the statement that came from the administration is a statement that is akin to an apology and I think is a severe miscalculation,” he said.
The comments provoked Obama to shoot back that Romney had “a tendency to shoot first and aim later” that he suggested was unbecoming of one seeking the nation’s highest office.
“As president, one of the things I’ve learned is you can’t do that,” Obama told CBS in an interview set to be aired on “60 Minutes.”
Obama said the statement from the embassy was sent out by people on the ground worried about the safety of those in the embassy. He reiterated his support of the First Amendment, but said the film — which has been promoted by a Florida pastor famous for burning Qurans — was an affront to American values.
“The situation in Cairo was one in which an embassy that is being threatened by major protests releases a press release saying that the film that had disturbed so many Muslims around the world wasn’t representative of what Americans believe about Islam.
“In an effort to cool the situation down — it didn’t come from me, it didn’t come from Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton, it came from people on the ground who are potentially in danger. And 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.
Obama also criticized Romney’s comments for being out of step with politicians in both parties who had centered their remarks on condemning the violence.
“I think most Americans, Democrats or Republicans, understand that there are times when we set politics aside, and one of those is when we’ve got a direct threat to American personnel who are overseas,” Obama said. “And so I think that if you look at how most Republicans have reacted, most elected officials, they’ve reacted responsibly, waiting to find out the facts before they talk, making sure that our No. 1 priority is the safety and security of American personnel.”
The back-and-forth between Obama and Romney, which came as television viewers were inundated with disturbing images of burning U.S. flags and battered American bodies being carried through the streets, underscored the openings both sides saw to score points in the tight presidential race.
Obama hopes to conserve a 7-point lead on national security that could prove vital with veterans in evenly divided Virginia and North Carolina, while Romney has sought to paint Obama as the “second coming of Jimmy Carter,” who oversaw a weak economy and the taking of the U.S. Embassy by Iranian student-protesters in 1979.
The controversial statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Egypt came out as hundreds of protesters began to assemble outside the building. It criticized “continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.”
While Obama defended those behind the statement, many Republicans throughout Wednesday criticized it, and the administration sought to distance the White House from its content late Tuesday.
Shortly after Romney’s initial comments, an unnamed administration staffer reportedly told ABC News that “no one in Washington approved that statement before it was released and it doesn’t reflect the views of the U.S. government.”
The attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya was initially blamed on a mob provoked by the anti-Islam film, but increasingly looked like a coordinated attack that might have been carried out by a terrorist group to mark the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The assault came one day after al Qaeda posted a video on the Internet calling on Libyans to attack Americans as revenge for the death in a June drone strike of Abu Yahya al-Libi, al Qaeda’s No. 2, prompting several lawmakers, including Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), to label the Libya attack as revenge killings.
Clinton defended the actions of Libyan officials in an emotional briefing Wednesday morning, saying several had been wounded in their efforts to fight off the attackers.
“We must be clear-eyed even in our grief: This was an attack by a small and savage group, not the people or government of Libya,” she said. “And when the attack came yesterday, Libyans stood and fought to defend our post. Some were wounded. Libyans carried Chris’s body to the hospital and they helped rescue and lead other Americans to safety.”
Stevens, a career foreign service officer, had served as ambassador to Libya since June. He was the special representative to the National Transitional Council during the U.S.-backed revolution that toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi last year, and was well-liked by many Libyans.
He is the eighth ambassador to die in the line of duty, according to the State Department Office of the Historian; the last was Adolph Dubs, who was killed in Afghanistan in 1979. Also killed in Libya were Sean Smith, an information management officer, and two other State Department employees who have yet to be identified.
Erik Wasson, Justin Sink and Carlo Muñoz contributed.