By Richard Wolf
and Jackie Kucinich
WASHINGTON -- The murderous attacks on American consulates in Libya and Egypt temporarily shift the focus of the presidential campaign from President Obama's record on the economy to his stewardship of foreign policy, giving Republican Mitt Romney potential risks and rewards.
As soon as the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was confirmed late Tuesday night, Romney lit into Obama for the initial statement from the U.S. embassy in Cairo, which condemned anti-Islam rhetoric that "hurt the religious feelings of Muslims."
Romney doubled down on his criticism Wednesday morning, upstaging Obama before the president spoke out against the attacks in the White House Rose Garden and visited the State Department with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. "America cannot shrink from the responsibility to lead," Romney said.
Unless the situation in the Middle East spins out of control, however, the attack and Obama's forceful denunciation and actions in response could strengthen his hand, experts say, since he has successfully waged war on al-Qaeda throughout the Middle East and northern Africa.
"You have a Republican challenger who is behind in the polls, who is looking for an opportunity to drive a wedge and to create a sense that Obama is the apologizer, he's the anti-American exceptionalist, he's weak," says Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator and adviser to six secretaries of State over 25 years. "Unless it is validated day after day after day, it is not going to provide him much leverage and room to make the case."
For Obama, the attacks offer an opportunity to show strong leadership, that most prized presidential trait. His administration took action immediately in sending about 200 U.S. Marines from the Italian coast to Libya.
International events frequently interfere with U.S. elections, and they haven't been kind to Democrats. The war in Vietnam proved to be Lyndon Johnson's downfall in 1968, keeping him from seeking re-election. The Iranian hostage crisis led to President Jimmy Carter's downfall in 1980.
For Obama, the most dangerous issue -- politically and otherwise -- has been Iran's nuclear program. Just hours before events in Libya unfolded Tuesday night, he was on the phone for an hour with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussing the potential for military action against Tehran.
The attacks in Libya and Egypt are likely to dominate the presidential debate only briefly unless they lead to more anti-American violence. Because of that, Romney's opportunity to blame Obama may be fleeting.
"It's a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values," Romney said from his campaign office in Jacksonville. "When our grounds are being attacked and breached...the first response of the United States must be outrage."
Romney sought to put the blame back on Obama, saying the president has "demonstrated a lack of clarity as to foreign policy."
Obama's statements didn't mention Romney or politics. Instead, the president heaped praise on Stevens and the other victims and vowed that justice would be done.
"We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act," Obama said. "And make no mistake, justice will be done."
Most current and former Republican political and diplomatic officials issued restrained statements of unity, refusing to go where Romney instantly ventured. Those included former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Republican congressional leaders John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, and Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential candidate.
Some Republicans followed Romney's lead, however. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said, "America has suffered as a result of President Obama's failure to lead and his failed foreign policy of appeasement and apology."
Rep. Tom Price, chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, said, "Absent American leadership, the world will only become a far more dangerous place. At a time of great turmoil, we must reinforce our commitment to lead out front, not from behind" -- a reference to the U.S. strategy last year in backing up European nations during the Libyan revolution.
While Obama stayed above the fray, other Democrats came to his defense against Romney's attacks -- notably Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass.
"This is one of those moments when Americans must unite as Americans," he said. "It is exactly the wrong time to throw political punches. It is a time to restore calm and proceed wisely."