WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is looking to recover from a tough week dominated by foreign policy as President Barack Obama balances campaigning for a second term with facing the spread of anti-American violence in the Muslim world.
Obama led the nation in a somber homecoming Friday for four Americans killed in a brazen attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya, as his election opponents argued they would have done a better job preventing crisis from erupting overseas.
With anti-U.S. protests spreading, Obama sought Friday to offer both compassion as president and firm resolve as commander in chief to protect besieged American interests abroad. Polls have shown most voters consider Obama a steady international leader, and the ongoing unrest abroad is challenging him to prove he deserves that confidence.
Republican challenger Mitt Romney also faced a delicate test. With momentum in the tight race recently going toward Obama, Romney sought to keep up sharp campaigning without appearing to divide the nation and unnecessarily attacking the commander in chief at a time of crisis.
Romney is trying to reassure concerned conservatives he has a winning strategy that hinges, at least in part, on strong performances at next month’s debates. But he will also unveil an aggressive push to expand his support among women and Hispanics, key groups that both sides are courting heavily.
Both men will be on the campaign trail in the coming week after a largely quiet weekend.
White House officials said there were no plans to pull back on Obama’s extensive campaign travel next week, which includes rallies in Ohio on Monday, a fundraiser in New York on Tuesday and a two-city Florida swing on Thursday. The president is also expected to campaign Saturday in Wisconsin, the home state of Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan and one that Romney is working to turn competitive.
A high-ranking national security aide travels with Obama on all of his campaign trips, and officials said he would continue to be briefed on events in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world while on the road.
On Friday, Obama watched inside an Andrews Air Force Base hangar in Maryland as four transfer cases, each one covered with an American flag, were loaded into separate hearses. He vowed that the victims’ sacrifice would not be forgotten and that he would do everything to protect Americans serving overseas. He told congressional leaders in a letter Friday that forces from the U.S. Africa Command have been deployed in Libya and Yemen to protect U.S. citizens and property and will remain until safety is restored.
“We will bring to justice those who took them from us,” Obama vowed in a solemn national moment coming less than eight weeks before Election Day.
The Republican ticket is trying to hit Obama on his strength, as polling shows that Americans are more likely to trust the president who ended the war in Iraq and led the killing of Osama bin Laden on foreign policy matters.
But Romney has struggled to make the case against the sitting commander in chief as the unrest has spread. Since an initial statement mischaracterized the chaotic events, Romney has taken a mournful tone about the loss of life and instead is making a broader argument that Obama has a pattern of sending the wrong message to the world.
He delayed the start of his rally in Ohio so he could watch the homecoming ceremony on television. He said he watched with his hand over his heart, and then he led the crowd of about 3,000 in a moment of silence “in recognition of the bloodshed for freedom.”
Romney left the political arguments to his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, who argued that, if elected, the pair would provide “the confident exercise of American influence” to keep the peace.
“American foreign policy needs moral clarity and firmness of purpose,” Ryan told conservatives at the Values Voters Summit in Washington.
White House spokesman Jay Carney criticized the timing of the criticism.
“The criticism, in particular from Gov. Romney and his team, in what seems to be an attempt to score a political point, has been both factually wrong and poorly timed,” Carney said. “Now is the time when Americans should be coming together.”
Anti-American protests have spread to around 20 countries, with the most violent in the Mideast. Demonstrators scaled the walls of U.S. Embassies in Tunisia and Sudan on Friday, while police in Egypt fired tear gas and deployed armored vehicles to prevent protesters from nearing the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
The instability is raising broader questions about U.S. policy in the Middle East, a sudden challenge for Obama just as his campaign is trying to galvanize his barely emerging campaign momentum.
Some foreign policy experts — particularly conservatives and former Bush administration officials — have questioned whether Washington acted unwisely by backing Arab Spring protests that ousted autocratic leaders like former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who had been traditional U.S. allies.
Carney said the administration remained committed to Arab citizens seeking democratic reforms.
“This president’s approach to what has been called the Arab Spring, to this unrest, has been to lay out a set of principles and support for human rights, and to make clear that we support a process of nonviolent political and economic change and reform in the region,” he said.
He said cooperation with Arab countries in transition was advancing U.S. national security interests.
Before the transfer of remains ceremony, Obama met privately with the families of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, diplomat Sean Smith and consulate security guards Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods. The four were killed during a raid on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that came on Tuesday’s 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks as Arabs were angered over an obscure anti-Muslim film produced by a California filmmaker.
Speaking at a New York City fundraiser Friday, Romney turned his attention to Israel, a U.S. ally he has accused the Obama administration of failing. Romney criticized Obama for not planning to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an upcoming visit to the United States, calling it an “extraordinarily confusing and troubling decision.”
“There have been over the years, confusing messages sent by the president of the United States to the world,” Romney said.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.