WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama led the nation in a somber homecoming Friday for four Americans killed in a brazen attack on a U.S. Consulate, as his election opponents argued they would have done a better job preventing crisis from erupting overseas.
Obama watched inside an Andrews Air Force Base hangar 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.
"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.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said he delayed the start of his rally in Painesville, Ohio, so he could watch the 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.
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 with momentum in the race recently going toward Obama, the Republicans are looking to expand against the chief argument of their campaign so far that the president has not led the country out of economic doldrums.
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 and North Africa. 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.
Obama 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.
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.
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.
Speaking at a New York City fundraiser Friday, Romney criticized Obama for failing 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.
His running mate was even more pointed. Ryan accused the Obama administration of "indifference bordering on contempt" toward Israel as Iran gets closer to gaining a nuclear weapon, and said dissidents are being slaughtered in Syria as mobs storm American missions in other countries.
"We know who America is dealing with in these attacks —they are extremists who operate by violence and intimidation," Ryan said. "And the least equivocation or mixed signal only makes them bolder.
"Amid all these threats and dangers, what we do not see is steady, consistent American leadership," he said.
Obama had planned to spend the weekend in Washington even before unrest developed overseas. There were no plans to pull back on his extensive campaign travel next week, which includes travel to Ohio, New York, Florida, Virginia and Wisconsin — a state that helped elect him four years ago and one the Romney campaign has been trying to put in play since introducing Ryan as his ticket mate last month.
Following a quick trip to New York, where Romney's campaign says he raised $7.5 million at three fundraisers, the candidate traveled to Ohio. Obama carried the perennial battleground state in 2008, but it remains in the toss-up category and could again play a pivotal role in the Nov. 6 election.
Associated Press writers Kasie Hunt in Washington and Ken Thomas in Painesville, Ohio contributed to this report.