FAIRFAX, Va. — Facing criticism, Republican White House nominee Mitt Romney on Thursday muted his barbed attacks against President Barack Obama's handling of a diplomatic crisis and tried to focus the campaign back on the economy.
The GOP challenger delivered a spirited speech and television ad accusing the president of failing American workers. But he did not repeat his assertions that Obama apologized for American values in response to Mideast protests sparked by an obscure anti-Muslim film made in California.
Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in Libya, and demonstrators also tore down flags at U.S. embassies in Egypt and Yemen.
Obama, juggling the work of commander in chief while campaigning in a close race for re-election, told voters he was responding to the crisis by directing his administration to "do whatever is necessary" to protect Americans serving abroad.
"We are going to bring those who killed our fellow Americans to justice," Obama promised the rally in Golden, Colo. The Pentagon has dispatched two warships to the Libyan coast, ready to respond to any mission ordered by the president. Attorney General Eric Holder is returning from meetings in the Mideast to direct a criminal investigation into the consulate deaths.
Romney only briefly mentioned the crisis at the top of his speech in Virginia, one of fewer than 10 battleground states where the campaign is focused with less than eight weeks until Election Day. He spoke broadly about the need to strengthen American leadership overseas and warned that Obama was undercutting U.S. military might.
A heckler yelled out: "Why are you politicizing Libya?" The crowd drowned him out with chants of "U-S-A" and supporters nearby tried to place a Romney/Ryan placard in front of his face. The man ripped up the sign and was escorted out.
Romney focused most of his speech on criticism of Obama's record on jobs, wages and a growing gap between the rich and the poor.
"His policies have not worked," Romney said. His new television ad accuses Obama of losing jobs while China is gaining.
The change in message brought Romney back to an issue where he is seen as stronger and away from a touchy debate in the midst of the unfolding international emergency that brought him criticism even from some Republicans.
Polling shows voters see Romney, a former businessman, as a stronger leader on economic issues and Obama, who ended the Iraq war and led the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, as stronger in foreign affairs.
Romney advisers said there was a sense in the campaign as unrest unfolded in the Arab world that Romney needed to be decisive and swift in his response to distinguish himself from the president's tone — which Romney calls apologist — on some foreign policy matters.
Romney had suggested that Obama was weak and didn't react quickly enough to condemn the attacks. He was criticized in some political and foreign policy circles for the tone, substance and motives of his response, but was backed up Thursday by Sen. John McCain, who said the president's "feckless foreign policy" has weakened America.
Obama responded to Romney's attacks on the diplomatic crisis by suggesting the Republican is reckless and untested as a world leader. Obama accused him of having "a tendency to shoot first and aim later."
Obama blamed Republican leadership in the past decade for problems in the economy and asked for another term to continue working on them. "We've got so much work to do because there's still a lot of folks out there hurting," Obama said.
Pickler reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Charles Babington in Golden, Colo., and Steve Peoples in Boston contributed to this report.
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