WASHINGTON (AP) — Foreign affairs intruded dramatically on the presidential race Wednesday as Republican challenger Mitt Romney slammed the Obama administration’s initial response to assaults on U.S. diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya.
Until the attacks on American diplomatic missions in North Africa, the tightly contested race had focused on the struggling U.S. economy and high unemployment.
Romney issued a statement before confirmation that the American ambassador had been killed that condemned the first response by the administration of President Barack Obama to the assaults on U.S. diplomatic outposts in Benghazi, Libya, as well as Cairo.
As the candidates were avoiding partisan conflict on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, mobs in Benghazi, Libya, and Cairo were provoked by an obscure YouTube video that insulted Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
The U.S. State Department, before all was known about the tragedy in Libya, issued a statement calling for calm both there and in Cairo and assuring Muslims that the American government condemned the video and insults to their religion.
That prompted a Romney statement voicing outrage over the attacks and what was then thought to have been the death of the American consulate worker. He has charged throughout his campaign for the White House that Obama has been soft on American opponents around the globe.
“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’s statement said.
In response to Romney, Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said in an email early Wednesday, “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.”
By Wednesday morning, once the tragic events were fully understood, Obama issued a statement in which he said:
“I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Right now, the American people have the families of those we lost in our thoughts and prayers.”
Obama also said: “While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.”
The violence against American diplomatic missions in the two North African countries compounded a controversy that arose earlier Tuesday over a dispute about whether Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would meet next week in New York.
That prompted Obama to spend an hour Tuesday night talking by phone with the Israeli leader who had publically chastised the world, the U.S. included, for failing to draw “red lines” against Iran’s nuclear program. The United States, Israel and many allies accuse Tehran of trying to build a nuclear weapon under the cover of what Iran insists is a program to build nuclear facilities for electricity generation and medical research.
Netanyahu has threatened to attack Iran and wants to the United States to join in. Obama believes there is still time to reach a diplomatic solution, although he has said the U.S. will not allow Tehran to have a nuclear weapon and that no American response will be taken off the table.
Foreign policy had been only a seldom-mentioned subtext in the brutal campaign for the White House. While polls show Obama is favored as the candidate best equipped to handle U.S. diplomacy and security affairs, voters are most concerned about the struggling U.S. economy and high unemployment.
With domestic issues suddenly overshadowed, if only temporarily, the candidates planned to resume their deeply partisan campaigns Wednesday. Negative ads were ready again to consume the television air waves and the candidates were spreading out across the battleground states that will decide the Nov. 6 election.
In a campaign speech and a new TV ad, Obama was accusing Romney of failing to explain how he would pay for trillions of dollars in tax cuts.
Romney, in the midst of a campaign week that has slingshot him across the U.S., was holding one event Wednesday — at his own campaign office in Jacksonville, Florida. He was expected to make the case that the nation’s debt is undermining job creation and economic growth.
Obama was heading west, to Nevada, where he planned to hit Romney and vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan with charges of secrecy. The Obama campaign says the two Republicans are refusing to tell voters how they could pay for tax cuts that disproportionately help the wealthy without having to gut deductions for middle-class taxpayers.
An Obama campaign ad making that point will start running in Iowa, Virginia, Nevada and Ohio. Those four states, plus Florida, New Hampshire and Colorado, continue to draw the most campaign time and money, with others states looming on the margins as possible toss-ups.
Polls show that Obama has opened up a slight lead over Romney in the aftermath of the Republican and Democratic national conventions. The three presidential debates, starting on Oct. 3, give Romney his best chance to pull ahead.
Associated Press writer Ben Feller contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.