White House challenger Mitt Romney stumbled and missed his mark on Tuesday as he attacked Barack Obama’s handling of last month’s deadly attack on a U.S. mission in Libya.
The Obama camp had been flailing for a month to explain its response to the September 11 assault on the Benghazi consulate, at first blaming it on protesters before concluding it was a pre-planned attack by Islamist militants.
Four Americans, including U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens, died in the attack, and Romney's campaign has zeroed in on the issue to attack Obama’s broader Middle East policy and his perceived failure to understand looming threats.
It could have proved a weak point for the incumbent in the pair’s second televised debate on Thursday, with Romney returning to his theme that Obama’s policy is “unraveling before our very eyes.”
Obama had slammed Romney for trying to make political capital out of a national security issues and said in his own defense that he had declared the Benghazi assault an “act of terror” the very day after it took place.
Sensing a mistake, Romney went in for the kill.
“I think it’s interesting, the president just said something, which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror,” Romney said.
“That's what I said,” Obama replied.
“You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror? It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you're saying?” Romney asked.
“Please proceed governor,” Obama said, relaxing back on his tall chair.
“I want to make sure we get that for the record - because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror,” Romney protested.
“Get the transcript,” Obama suggested.
As Romney stood center stage, looking suddenly less sure of himself, CNN journalist and debate moderator Candy Crowley stepped in: “He did in fact, sir.”
“Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” Obama asked with amusement.
“He, he did call it an act of terror,” she stuttered, as Romney looked deflated.
In fact, on September 12, in the Rose Garden, Obama had indeed said in reference to the Benghazi attack: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.”
Aside from Romney’s stumble, which was seized upon with glee by Obama's campaign and broader support base, both candidates landed some tough blows on the Libya issue - without either scoring a knockout.
Obama accused Romney of exploiting the issue and missing a chance to prove that he has the mettle to become U.S. commander-in-chief.
“While we were still dealing with our diplomats being threatened, Governor Romney put out a press release,” Obama said, referring to the Republican’s criticisms on the night of the attack.
“Trying to make political points, and that’s not how a commander-in-chief operates. You don’t turn national security into a political issue, certainly not right when it’s happening,” he said during an angry exchange.
Romney hit back, accusing Obama of going on a fundraising tour the day after the September 11 assault on the Benghazi consulate and declaring that his Middle East policy was “unraveling before our very eyes.”
But Obama retorted: “The suggestion that anybody on my team, whether it's a secretary of state, our UN ambassador, anybody on my team, would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own, governor, is offensive.”
“That’s not what we do. That’s not what I do as president, not what I do as commander-in-chief,” the president declared, fixing Romney with an angry stare before turning on his heel and heading back to his seat.