NEW YORK — President Barack Obama had the grim task Friday of honoring the return of four Americans killed in a brazen attack on a U.S. Consulate, while his Republican rivals argued they would do a better job of preventing crisis from erupting overseas.
The White House announced that the president would travel to Andrews Air Force Base just south of Washington to attend a ceremony marking the return to the U.S. of Ambassador Chris Stevens, diplomat Sean Smith and consulate security guards Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, killed during an attack Tuesday on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton planned to deliver brief remarks in a solemn national moment coming less than eight weeks before Election Day.
Meanwhile, Republican challenger Mitt Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, sharpened attacks on Obama's foreign policy record following a spate of anti-American upheaval across the Muslim world.
"American foreign policy needs moral clarity and firmness of purpose," Ryan told conservatives at the Values Voters Summit in Washington. "Only by the confident exercise of American influence are evil and violence overcome. That is how we keep problems abroad from becoming crises. That is what keeps the peace. And that is what we will have in a Romney-Ryan administration."
White House spokesman Jay Carney criticized the timing of the political debate.
"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."
Romney has struggled to make the case against the sitting commander in chief as angry protests over a low-budget film produced in the United States turned violent this week. After an initial statement mischaracterized the tumultuous 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.
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 slaughtered in Syria as mobs storm American missions.
"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.
Romney, appearing at a $4 million breakfast fundraiser at a New York hotel where 900 donors paid $2,500-$25,000 for tickets, criticized Obama for declining to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an upcoming visit to the United States for meetings of the United Nations General Assembly. The White House has cited scheduling conflicts.
"I don't know what the president is trying to send to the world in terms of a message but it does send a message," Romney said.
"There have been over the years, confusing messages sent by the president of the United States to the world," Romney added.
Obama had planned to spend Saturday and Sunday 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 was headed Friday to Ohio, which has been essential to any Republican seeking the White House. 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.