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Romney’s blasts at Obama signal a new kind of campaign

By David Lightman, McClatchy Newspapers –

WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney’s stinging blasts at President Barack Obama in the wake of attacks on U.S. diplomatic posts in Libya and Egypt was a vivid illustration of how much American politics has changed.

The tactic is a break with American campaign history. While debates over wars have raged in campaigns — in 1916 and 1940 over Europe, in 1968 over Vietnam, in 2004 over Iraq — presidential politics traditionally stopped at least temporarily in times of crisis or emergency. Candidates such as Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and John Kerry all chose to still their partisan rhetoric at least temporarily during such moments.

Not this time.

The Egypt and Libya crises began erupting earlier this week as protesters apparently grew incensed over an American-produced video they believed insulted the Prophet Muhammad.

Early Tuesday, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo issued a statement that appeared to criticize the American video in an effort to defuse the protests.

“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions,” it said. “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”

About eight hours later, it was reported that an American worker at the U.S. consulate compound in Libya had been killed. Two hours after that, around 10 p.m. EDT, Romney condemned the attacks in Libya and Egypt and seized on the embassy statement issued before the attacks to lambaste Obama.

“It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks,” he said.

His campaign requested the statement not be released until after midnight on the East Coast, once Sept. 11, a day of reflection, was over. Romney withheld the statement only briefly, releasing it around 10:25 p.m.

At the White House, officials said the embassy statement did not reflect the government’s views, and shortly after midnight, the Obama campaign fired back.

Some Republicans echoed the criticism, suggesting that Obama had apologized to the people who had attacked Americans in Libya or stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.

“Our embassy is attacked and our flag destroyed and Obama apologizes,” Newt Gingrich tweeted Wednesday.

“Obama apologized to the Egyptian rioters,” wrote Republican strategist Rich Galen.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., a Foreign Affairs subcommittee chairman, demanded an “immediate apology to the American people” for the initial embassy statement, and party Chairman Reince Priebus tweeted, “Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic.”

In past campaigns, presidential challengers traditionally waited to comment.

In 1980, a U.S. effort to rescue the Iran hostages failed, resulting in the deaths of eight Americans. Ronald Reagan was still vying with George H.W. Bush for the Republican nomination, while Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., was challenging President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination. All urged national unity and sympathy for the dead.

Reagan, an iconic figure to the conservatives rallying behind Romney today, said at a news conference, “This is a difficult day for all of us Americans. … It is time for us … to stand united. It is a day for quiet reflection … when words should be few and confined essentially to our prayer.”

Twenty years later, George W. Bush was running against Vice President Al Gore when terrorists attacked the Navy destroyer USS Cole in Yemen. The mid-October attack occurred a day after they had debated. Bush urged sympathy for the victims’ families and said the Clinton administration should learn the facts so appropriate action could be taken.

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