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Romney digs in on Obama "apology"

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By Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman
For POLITICO.com

Veering away from the political caution and relentless economic focus that have defined his presidential campaign, Mitt Romney repeatedly charged the Obama administration with a "disgraceful" and conciliatory response to yesterday's riots in North Africa that left an American ambassador and multiple diplomatic aides dead.

Abandoning the restraint that presidential candidates typically show in moments of bloodshed, Romney accused President Barack Obama of wanting to "apologize" for American values as protests against an anti-Islam film turned violent in Egypt and Libya.

So far, it's an offensive that Romney's undertaking alone. In a flurry of statements Wednesday morning, Republican congressional leaders and foreign policy eminences declined to join his attack against the president.

Romney first leveled the attack against Obama in a statement late Tuesday, declaring that the Obama administration reacted to violence against Americans by "sympathiz[ing] with those who waged the attacks." The reference was to a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, decrying "the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims."

Romney reiterated the charge at a morning press conference in Jacksonville, Fla.

"I think it's a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values," Romney said. "The statement was akin to an apology, and I think was a severe miscalculation."

Romney's running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, took a softer approach at a townhall meeting in Wisconsin, calling the violence in North Africa "outrageous" without going after Obama directly.

"In the face of such a tragedy, we are reminded that the world needs American leadership and the best guarantee of peace is American strength," Ryan said.

For a candidate who has generally preferred to focus on domestic issues, Romney's all-out attack on Obama over the embassy violence is a dramatic lurch toward a debate over foreign policy and national security. Obama has had the edge on foreign policy issues over the course of the campaign, reversing the GOP's traditional advantage on defense issues.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who spoke at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, commented Wednesday morning only on "the tragic loss of life at our consulate in Benghazi," which included the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

"Ambassador Chris Stevens was a wonderful officer and a terrific diplomat who was dedicated to the cause of freedom. His service in the Middle East throughout his career was legendary," Rice said in a statement. "My thoughts and prayers are with the loved ones of all of the fallen. They will be sorely missed but never forgotten."

In public, Romney and his allies are standing firmly behind the accusation that the president and his administration have neglected their responsibilities to the country in a moment of crisis. Knowledgeable Republicans said Romney's denunciations of Obama are motivated by a sincere outrage, on the part of the GOP nominee, that the president failed to rebuke a violent mob gripped by anti-American fury.

While the White House has distanced itself from the statement issued by its Egypt embassy, Romney and his aides argue that the embassy is merely an agent of the administration, and that neither Obama nor any of his aides issued a contradictory statement for hours after the protests turned violent.

Several Republican aides and Romney advisers, speaking anonymously Wednesday morning, suggested that Romney may have ended up further out on a limb than his team originally intended when it issued its first statement Tuesday night.

In addition to that statement, Romney adviser Rich Williamson — a former Bush administration envoy to Sudan — gave an interview to Foreign Policy magazine calling the Middle East unrest a reflection of "the Obama administration's failed policies in that region."

Among the few Republicans backing up Romney's position was South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who issued a statement Wednesday calling it "disheartening to hear the administration condemn Americans engaging in free speech that hurt the feelings of Muslims, while real atrocities have been repeatedly committed by Islamic radicals against women, Christians, and Jews in the Middle East."

For the most part, Republicans conceded that Romney's charge that Obama sympathized with perpetrators of violence in Egypt and Libya looks very different now that a high-ranking diplomat is dead.

Some in the GOP quietly agreed with the substance of Romney's critique but lamented its timing and execution.

"He was right about the things he said. Maybe the timing wasn't great," said one senior House Republican who asked not to be named discussing Romney's strategy.

"There's a six and a half hour gap — a six hour and 15 minute gap — between the statement and the news that the ambassador was killed," said one Republican aligned with Romney. "The timing is just really unfortunate."

Romney's decision to amplify his initial cannon blast at Obama is also consistent with how he's handled most controversies this election cycle. The former Massachusetts governor has gone to great pains to avoid being tagged anew as a flip-flopper — in his view, backpedaling on anything comes at a price.

"They [the White House] didn't condemn the attacks until after midnight, which no one saw until this morning. The attacks started yesterday afternoon," said one Republican official. "The embassy was defending the apology and the Obama administration let it stand as [the] only statement for the entire day following the attack on embassy."

Obama spoke from the White House shortly after Romney's event in Florida. In a separate appearance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the violence against American diplomats should "shock the conscience" of the world.

Obama did not respond to Romney's criticism in his remarks Wednesday morning, but his campaign spokesman rebuked Romney for its initial statement calling Obama "disgraceful."

"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," campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt said.

House Speaker John Boehner announced Wednesday morning that flags at the U.S. Capitol would be flown at half-staff in honor of the U.S. diplomats killed in Benghazi.

The melee over Romney's response to the embassy elevates foreign policy on the 2012 campaign agenda, after both candidates neglected defense issues for most of the campaign.

Democrats emphasized national security at their convention in Charlotte last week and attacked Romney as a political calculator who can't be trusted with matters of life and death. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, who pilloried Romney in North Carolina, sharply rebuked the GOP presidential nominee Wednesday and called on Romney to apologize.

"Gov. Romney's comments are about as inappropriate as anything I have ever seen at this kind of a moment," Kerry said on Capitol Hill, according to the AP. "To make those kinds of statements before you even know the facts, before families have even been notified before things have played out is really not just inexperienced, it's irresponsible, it's callous, it's reckless. And I think he ought to apologize and I don't think he knows what he's talking about frankly."

That Romney campaign's first statement hit reporters' in-boxes late Tuesday, before the full extent of the damage in Cairo and Benghazi was known, and before the death of Ambassador Stevens, the American envoy in Libya, was reported.

It was also initially released with a midnight embargo — not to be released until after the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — before the Romney campaign decided to issue it in wide release sooner.

Asked in Florida if his campaign had erred by issuing a statement attacking the administration Tuesday night on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, as events were still unfolding on the ground, Romney responded: "I don't think we ever hesitate when we see something which is a violation of our principles."

Conservative pundits were split Wednesday on the content and timing of Romney's response. Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan said on Fox News that Romney has not "been doing himself any favors, say in the past few hours, perhaps since last night."

Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol, a strongly hawkish voice and on-and-off Romney critic, wrote that the Republican is right to "reject the counsel of the mainstream media, which is to keep quiet and give Obama a pass."

Whether Romney can turn this moment to his political advantage, Kristol said, remains to be seen.

"So far, I believe, pretty much so good. The question is, what comes next?" he wrote. "Will Romney seize the moment to spend time with some of his serious foreign policy advisers — even if to do so he has to cancel a trip to a swing state or (gasp!) a fundraise[r] — in order really to think through the meaning of these events, and prepare serious, presidential-level responses? If Romney can prove both strong and thoughtful on foreign policy over the next few days, it could be an inflection point in the presidential campaign."

Ginger Gibson and Jonathan Allen contributed to this report.

Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman are reporters for POLITICO.com. POLITICO and ABC News 4 have partnered for the 2012 presidential campaign cycle.

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