Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney leaves the podium after making comments on the killing of U.S. embassy officials in Benghazi, Libya, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012. in Jacksonville, Fla.
WASHINGTON — With a beloved ambassador dead and anti-American turmoil in Arab nations spreading, the presidential candidates are challenging each other's foreign policy credentials and squaring off over how the United States handles its place in the world.
At a rally Thursday in northern Virginia, Romney was expected to argue that the upheaval abroad showed the need for more American strength on foreign and domestic matters. He was ready to link both themes while maintaining a focus on the economy by accusing President Barack Obama's policies toward China of driving away U.S. jobs, campaign aides said.
Romney has suggested that Obama is weak and didn't react quickly enough to condemn attacks on U.S. missions overseas. He was backed up Thursday by the party's last presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain, who said the president's "feckless foreign policy" has weakened America.
Democrats have responded by suggesting that Romney is reckless and untested as a world leader, with Obama accusing him of having "a tendency to shoot first and aim later."
The campaign barbs came as protesters angered by an anti-Muslim film from a California filmmaker took to the streets and attacked a third U.S. mission this week. On Thursday, hundreds of demonstrators chanting "death to America" stormed the U.S. Embassy compound in Yemen's capital and burned the U.S. flag, replacing it with a black banner bearing Islam's declaration of faith — "There is no God but Allah."
Those protests followed attacks in first in Egypt, where scuffles persisted Thursday between police and protesters near the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. They then spread to Libya, leading to the death of American Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the U.S. consulate. The Obama administration is dispatching two warships to the Libyan coast, ready to respond to any mission ordered by the president, who vowed Wednesday that "justice will be done."
Romney responded by criticizing Obama for having "a hit-or-miss approach" on foreign policy and tried to blame the president for an early statement from the embassy in Cairo that criticized the film as protests were forming. Romney incorrectly said the statement came after the embassy's grounds had been breached and added that the president is responsible for the words that come from his diplomats around the world.
"They clearly sent mixed messages to the world," Romney told reporters while campaigning Wednesday in Florida. "The statement that came from the administration was a statement which is akin to an apology and I think was a severe miscalculation."
Obama responded to his rival in an interview with CBS News' "60 Minutes" later in the day. "It appears that Gov. Romney didn't have his facts right," Obama said. He added that as president "it's important for you to make sure that the statements you make are backed up by the facts, and that you've thought through the ramifications before you make them."
Congressional Democrats spoke in sync with the president and accused Romney of mishandling international affairs and trying to politicize a tragedy. Republicans were less unified — some questioned Romney's handling of national security measures and top GOP leaders in Congress did not echo his criticisms of the president. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Obama "correctly tightened the security overseas." Asked about Romney's remarks, he declined to answer and walked toward his office in the Capitol.
But McCain agreed the embassy response was weak and accused Obama of compromising American influence around the world.
"I'd like to see the president of the United States speak up once for the 20,000 people that are being massacred in Syria," McCain told NBC's "Today" show.
Liz Cheney, who worked was a senior official at the State Department while her father was vice president, said in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece that Obama has weakened America on the economy and has "an even more dismal national security record."
"Apologizing for America, appeasing our enemies, abandoning our allies and slashing our military are the hallmarks of Mr. Obama's foreign policy," she wrote.
The unrest overseas abruptly shifted the campaign's focus from jobs and the economy to international affairs. That could benefit Obama, who is seen as weaker on economic issues but a leader on the world stage. An Associated Press-GfK poll taken before the party's nominating conventions found Obama, who ended the war in Iraq and led the killing of Osama bin Laden, with a big advantage as the stronger leader of the two candidates, 50 percent to 41 percent among registered voters. In an NBC/WSJ poll in August, 46 percent of registered voters said Obama would be a more "calm and steady leader in a crisis," while 34 percent said Romney would be better and 12 percent said both would be equally good. But the crisis could change Americans' view of Obama's leadership less than eight weeks before the election in a campaign that has remained close for months.
Economic concerns could play a more prominent role Thursday, when Romney appears at a rally in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., and Obama campaigns in Colorado's Denver suburbs. Obama carried both states in 2008, but they remain up for grabs and heavily contested by both campaigns.
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The Labor Department announced Thursday that rising gasoline costs drove up U.S. wholesale prices last month by the most in more than three years. The Federal Reserve also was expected to announce later in the day whether it plans to take new steps to jumpstart the U.S. economy. Many anticipate the Fed will launch a third round of bond purchases aimed at easing long-term interest rates and spurring borrowing and spending.
Babington reported from Denver. AP White House Correspondent Ben Feller in Sterling, Va., contributed to this report.