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Romney stands by criticism, blasts Obama for 'mixed messages'

Mitt Romney on Wednesday stood by a statement issued by his campaign criticizing the Obama administration over its handling of violent protests at American diplomatic missions in the Middle East, saying, "President Obama has demonstrated a lack of clarity as to a foreign policy.

"I also believe the administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt instead of condemning their actions," Romney said. "It's never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans and defend our values."

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Romney was referring to a statement issued by his campaign Tuesday night after initial reports emerged that one diplomatic staff member had been killed in Libya. It was later confirmed that four Americans had lost their lives, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.

“I'm outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi," Romney said in the Tuesday statement. "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.”

By Wednesday morning, as the full extent and timeline of the tragedy became known, that statement began to draw fire.

Romney's reference to the "Obama administration's first response" was a statement made by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo before the attack on the embassy — and, according to the White House, not approved by Washington.

The Romney campaign was also criticized for violating the informal truce against negative campaigning on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks; while the statement hitting the president had been initially planned for release after midnight, the Romney campaign mysteriously lifted the embargo just before 10:30 p.m. EST.

The Obama campaign waited until after midnight before issuing a statement critical of Romney's remarks.

“We are 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,” said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt.

Even some Republican political strategists and consultants questioned the timing and tone of the Romney statement.

"Who is giving Romney this advice on politicizing death of ambassador? Comes across as inexperienced and craven," wrote John Weaver, who advised John McCain's and Jon Huntsman's campaigns, on Twitter.

While many lawmakers condemned the attacks strongly in statements Wednesday morning, most shied away from criticizing the Obama Administration. One prominent exception was Republican National Committee Chairmain Reince Priebus, who tweeted, "Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic."

Romney on Wednesday defended the timing of his statement.

"I don't think we ever hesitate when we see something that is a violation of our principles," Romney said.

But there was some indication the campaign was aware of the criticism. The Jacksonville, Fla., event at Romney's campaign headquarters there was hastily rearranged multiple times, as staff pulled down decorations and memorabilia and reset the stage with a more muted blue curtain. Originally set to be a campaign event, it was changed into a press conference.

Supporters and volunteers were ushered out of the building, left to peer in through the windows for a glimpse of the candidate they had come to see. As rows of chairs were hastily set for the traveling press — originally cordoned off in the back of the room — Romney aides set four standing American flags behind the podium.

Romney spoke shortly after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a public statement on the attacks in Libya, condemning the violence and praising the work of the Americans there. President Obama addressed the situation later Wednesday morning in a Rose Garden statement.

Romney opened his remarks by denouncing the attacks and extending condolences to the families of those who lost their lives.

"This attack on American individuals and embassies is outrageous, it's disgusting, it breaks the hearts of all of us," Romney said.

But Romney transitioned into a defense of his statement, which drew the media into a back-and-forth about the timing and content of his attack.

The Republican presidential nominee said the embassy statement — which condemned "the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions" — was the responsibility of Obama.

"It's their administration. Their administration spoke," Romney said. "The president takes responsibility not just for the words that came from his mouth, but the words that come from his ambassadors, his administration, from his embassies, from his State Department. 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."

— This story was updated at 11:12 a.m.