WASHINGTON - The attacks that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya became a flashpoint in the American presidential race Wednesday, as Republicans and Democrats criticized Mitt Romney for chastising President Barack Obama and his administration on their response to the violence.
The Republican presidential nominee told reporters at a Jacksonville, Fla., news conference that Obama's administration set a "terrible course" when the U.S. embassy in Cairo issued a statement the Republican nominee called "akin to apology" to Egyptian protesters before the death of U.S. envoy to Libya J. Christopher Stevens.
Those comments came just hours after Romney said in a statement issued late Tuesday night that the Obama administration's "first response" had been to "sympathize with those who waged the attacks," calling it "disgraceful."
Romney's reaction, which referred to a statement issued by the U.S. embassy in Cairo intended to ease tensions over an anti-Muslim film, was released hours before attacks broke out there and in Libya. The Republican's response sparked rebukes from Democrats and critical comments from members of his own party.
Romney "will find out that first reports from the battlefield are always incorrect," said Richard Armitage, the former deputy Secretary of State under Republican President George W. Bush. "This should be his mantra, so he can speak in a deliberate manner, and not have to repent at his leisure later."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, called Romney's statements "about as inappropriate as anything I have ever seen at this kind of moment." The comments show "an insensitivity and lack of judgment about what is happening," he told reporters.
The embassy statement in question said: "Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy." It also condemned "the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions."
Commentator Peggy Noonan, a former Republican official, told Fox News that Romney wasn't "doing himself any favors" with a response bound to be seen as politically craven.
"When you step forward in the midst of a political environment and start giving statements on something dramatic and violent that has happened, you're always leaving yourself open to accusations that you are trying to exploit things politically," she said on Fox News.
Romney's campaign sought to contain the damage from a fast- developing story that appeared to catch the candidate a former governor of Massachusetts and governor of Massachusetts who has no national security experience, flat-footed and that shifted attention away from his signature issue of jobs and the economy.
"It's a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values," Romney told reporters at a press conference held inside his Jacksonville, campaign headquarters where supporters who'd gathered for a separate event looked on through windows. "Instead, when our grounds are being attacked and being breached, the first response of the Unites States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation."
Romney's second round of remarks followed the confirmation that Stevens and three others were killed in an attack on the consulate in Benghazi amid protests in the north African country and neighboring Egypt over a film about the Prophet Muhammad viewed as blasphemous by Muslims.
Romney, who said he mourned the loss of American life and was praying for the victims' families, said the embassy's statement had been distributed "after their grounds had been breached." A review of the statement's release shows it was posted hours before the embassy walls were compromised.
"The embassy is the administration," Romney said. "The statement that came from the administration was a statement that was akin to apology."
In talking points his campaign distributed this morning to Republican surrogates, Romney's campaign instructed allies to dismiss the question, "Did Governor Romney 'jump the gun' last night in releasing his statement?"
"No," the talking points said, offering a line similar to one Romney used at his news conference. "It is never too soon to stand up for American values and interests."
The consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi came under rocket attack, Libya's deputy interior minister, Wanis El- Sharif, said by telephone Wednesday.
In Cairo, Egypt's capital, Islamist demonstrators scaled the walls of the U.S. embassy, ripped down a U.S. flag and chanted: "Obama, we are here to sacrifice for Osama."
Ben LaBolt , a spokesman for Obama's re-election campaign, criticized Romney's statement from Tuesday night.
"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, Governor Romney would choose to launch a political attack." LaBolt said early Wednesday in an emailed statement.
Obama Wednesday condemned "in the strongest terms" the attack in Libya and ordered tighter security at U.S. diplomatic post across the world.
The president said the U.S. rejects "all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification for this type of senseless violence. None."
He vowed the U.S. will work with the Libyan government to track down those responsible for the attack. "Justice will be done," he said in the White House Rose Garden with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at his side.
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