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U.S. Republican presidential nominee and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney listens to questions on the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya, in Jacksonville, Fla., on Wednesday.

JIM YOUNG/REUTERS

The fatal attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya thrust foreign policy to the top of the presidential campaign, with Republican nominee Mitt Romney accusing the Obama administration of appeasing Islamic terrorists and "apologizing" for American values.

President Barack Obama did not take the criticism lying down, telling CBS News on Wednesday that Mr. Romney "seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later."

Mr. Romney's harsh criticism of the White House and State Department broke with the unity usually exhibited by U.S. politicians amid a national-security crisis.

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It was a risky move for the Republican candidate, who already trails Mr. Obama in voter assessments of each candidate's foreign-policy abilities. Attacking Mr. Obama now could make Mr. Romney look opportunistic, and possibly out of his element.

However, the Republican nominee has also been under pressure from the hawks in his party to make up for barely mentioning foreign policy, and omitting any reference to U.S. troops, in his speech at last month's GOP convention.

On Tuesday night, Mr. Romney criticized the U.S. embassy in Cairo for issuing a statement that condemned "efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims."

Diplomats were responding to the circulation of an anti-Islamic video that had sparked protests at the U.S. missions in Cairo and Benghazi on Tuesday. But the Romney campaign pounced.

"It's disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn the attacks, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks," it said in a late Tuesday statement, after news of the death of a consulate worker in Benghazi.

Mr. Romney repeated the criticism after the deaths of three more Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, were confirmed. "The first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation. And apology for American values is never the right course," Mr. Romney said at a campaign stop on Wednesday.

Massachusetts Democratic Senator John Kerry lashed out at Mr. Romney, calling his reaction "not just inexperienced – it's irresponsible, it's callous, it's reckless."

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But the Republican nominee drew strong praise from Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, a staunch neoconservative who holds sway with the GOP base: "Romney deserves credit for emphasizing today that the events in Cairo and Benghazi remind us of the need for American leadership. … He spoke in the tradition of conservative internationalism."

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