WASHINGTON: Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney veered away from a blistering two days of ill-timed attacks on President Barack Obama's handling of foreign affairs Thursday, and instead steered to safer political ground: the struggling American economy.
At a campaign appearance in Virginia, Romney returned to his standing promises to revitalize the U.S. economy, which he said is a first requirement for continued American military dominance.
Recalling Obama's successful 2008 campaign message of hope and change, Romney told his audience in a Washington suburb: "We want real changes, I'm going to bring real change and get America working again."
Romney's dramatic move back to campaigning on the U.S. economy, the No. 1 issue for American voters, followed heavy political fire from Obama, congressional Democrats and even some powerful Republican voices. He was roundly criticized for seeking political advantage by accusing the president of apologizing to radical Islamists as they killed a U.S. ambassador and three other diplomatic workers in Libya and attacked the U.S. embassy in Egypt.
Romney's message Thursday was a reprise intended to remind voters of his long career in high finance and business as co-founder of Bain Capital, a private equity firm from which he amassed a quarter-billion dollar fortune.
The abrupt shift also came as the Federal Reserve said it will spend $40 billion a month to purchase mortgaged-back securities because the economy is too weak to reduce high unemployment. The Fed said it will keep buying the securities until the job market shows substantial improvement.
The Fed also extended a plan to keep short-term interest rates at record-low levels through mid-2015. Both steps were announced after the Fed's two-day policy meeting. The bond purchases are intended to lower long-term interest rates to spur borrowing and spending. The Fed has previously bought $2 trillion in Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities since the 2008 financial crisis.
The Republican's campaign apparatus apparently had realized that by moving away from Romney's economic message and hitting Obama on foreign affairs, the candidate was playing to the president's strength. Polls show voters far and away see the president as the best of the two candidates in handling foreign policy and security issues.
The economy, meanwhile, has been the top issue throughout the race, with recent surveys showing Romney with a narrow advantage over the president when it comes to plans for reducing the nation's unemployment rate of 8.1 percent.
Romney launched the attacks on Obama late Tuesday, accusing him of showing weakness in responding to the attacks, the worst of which killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three American members of his staff. Romney's statement was released well before the full extent of the attack was known.
The assaults on U.S. diplomatic missions began in Cairo. Romney blasted an initial statement from the U.S. Embassy there as disgraceful and "akin to apology," adding later, "It's never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans and to defend our values."
However, the embassy statement came before the protesters had breached the embassy's walls and was an affirmation of the American policy of religious tolerance and respect, and was not cleared by the White House. A statement by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton minutes before Romney's was released condemned the attack in Libya and said there was no justification for such violent acts.
Obama made a somber statement Wednesday morning condemning the attacks and announcing plans to deploy additional Marines at diplomatic posts overseas. An additional U.S. warship was dispatched to the Libyan coast. In an interview with CBS News' "60 Minutes" later in the day, Obama said the episode showed Romney's penchant for having "a tendency to shoot first and aim later."
"It appears that Gov. Romney didn't have his facts right," Obama said.
On Wednesday night, during a rally in Las Vegas, the president said he had a message for the rest of the world: "No act of terror will dim the light of the values that we proudly shine on the rest of the world, and no act of violence will shake the resolve of the United States of America." ''And make no mistake. Justice will be done" he declared.
The four diplomats were killed on Tuesday as protesters overran and burned the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. That happened after the U.S. Embassy in Cairo was breached by protesters, and the American flag was ripped down, although no deaths were reported.
By Thursday the violence spread as hundreds of protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy compound in Yemen's capital, Sanaa. They tore down and burned the U.S. flag, replacing it with a black banner bearing Islam's declaration of faith - "There is no God but Allah."
American officials were investigating whether the attack in Libya was a terrorist strike timed to mark the 11th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Initial reports were that both the Libya and Egypt events had been motivated by anger over an anti-Muslim film made in the United States.
The Obama and Romney exchange occurred with less than eight weeks remaining in a tight presidential race, a campaign that has remained close for months and is being fiercely waged in fewer than 10 battleground states - Virginia included - that don't consistently vote Democratic or Republican.
Obama holds an event in Colorado's Denver suburbs. Obama carried both states in 2008, but they remain up for grabs and heavily contested by both campaigns.
Obama said in the "60 Minutes" interview that the Cairo embassy was trying to "cool the situation down" and its statement was released "from folks on the ground who are potentially in danger."
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."