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Top Republicans, including presidential nominee Mitt Romney, turned the attacks on a U.S. consulate in Libya and the embassy in Egypt into a political war of words Wednesday - a decision that revealed a split between those in the party who wanted to take election-year shots and those more accustomed to projecting a sense of national unity in the wake of such a tragedy.
With Romney refusing to back down from a blistering critique of the Obama administration's foreign policy, many Republicans on Capitol Hill also turned their fire on the administration. Some, such as House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (Calif.), changed their statements later in the day in an apparent attempt to show more solidarity with Romney, but the party's most senior elected leaders - including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) - decided to take a pass on making the death of a U.S. ambassador and three others in Libya a political issue.
Most Republicans joined President Barack Obama in condemning the attacks, but some also took the opportunity to reiterate Romney's criticism of the Obama administration for what the GOP nominee has called a pattern of apologizing for American values.
"The president takes responsibility not just for the words that come from his mouth but also for the words that come from his ambassadors, from his administration, from his embassies, from his State Department," Romney said at a news conference in Florida. "They clearly sent mixed messages to the world, and the statement that came from the administration - and the embassy is the administration - the statement that came from the administration was a statement which is akin to apology, and I think was a severe miscalculation."
Romney made his remarks in response to comments from the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt, regarding a protest and attack at that embassy. The embassy sought to distance the U.S. government from a film made in America by saying it condemned efforts to "hurt the religious feelings of Muslims." The film has offended Muslims by depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad in a negative light. Initial reports identified the film's director as an Israeli-American, but it now appears the film was actually made by an Egyptian living in Califorinia.
Obama did not mince words when asked about Romney's comments by CBS News later in the day.
"Gov. Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later," Obama said, adding that Romney should have waited for all the facts to come out before making comments. Pressed on whether he would say Romney was being irresponsible with his words, Obama said it would be for others to determine. Earlier in the day, Obama vowed in the Rose Garden to see that "justice will be done" for those Americans who died in the attacks.
Romney initially criticized the embassy's response on Tuesday evening. Romney's statement came before news of the killing of Stevens and three other Americans at the U.S. consulate in Libya was reported. Both attacks were initially attributed to anger over the independent film, but U.S. officials said Wednesday afternoon that terrorists may have taken advantage of the chaos during the Libyan protest to launch a rocket-propelled grenade attack that was intended as revenge for the U.S.'s role in killing Abu Yahya al-Libi, the No. 2 leader of the terrorist group al-Qaida. The group's current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, confirmed the death of his deputy Tuesday - the 11th anniversary of 9/11.
Though there was no shortage of people coming to Romney's defense, many of the GOP lawmakers who have had the most experience with tricky foreign relations issues said they wished Romney would have tempered his criticism until more information was available.
"I wish he would have waited 12 hours or 24 hours to make the statement, but he is right in the overall situation as I see it. We have to be more aggressive in the Middle East," House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) said.
King suggested Romney should take time to lay out a more thorough position on democratic development in the Middle East.
"It could be misinterpreted when something tragic does happen and it could be perceived as being political," King said.
Other senior GOP leaders simply declined to make political statements at all. McConnell and Boehner expressed outrage and sadness at the attacks without commenting on the administration's handling of the issue.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), ranking Member on the Armed Services Committee and a longtime party standard-bearer on foreign affairs, would not go out of his way to back Romney's remarks.
"I'm not going to talk about Mitt Romney's comments today. Chris Stevens was a close and dear friend of mine, and I'm not going to get into the back-and-forth of that today," McCain said.
House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) pointed to the "a well-armed, well-coordinated" nature of the attack in Benghazi in cautioning against drawing too many conclusions too quickly, adding that discussions of policy could be had later.
McCain's home-state colleague, GOP Sen. Jon Kyl, however, offered the most fervent defense of Romney.
"It's like the judge telling the woman who got raped, 'You asked for it because of the way you dressed.' OK? That's the same thing. 'Well America, you should be the ones to apologize, you should have known this would happen, you should have done - what I don't know - but it's your fault that it happened.'" Kyl said. "You know, for a member of our State Department to put out a statement like that, it had to be cleared by somebody. They don't just do that in the spur of the moment."
The Obama administration has said it had no prior knowledge of the statements from Egypt and distanced itself from the embassy.
Hours after issuing a brief and somber statement, McKeon followed up with a sharp rebuke of Obama administration foreign policy.
"If history has taught us anything, it is that weakness is provocative. Again and again under President Obama we have met threats and thugs with apologies and concessions. Unsurprisingly, these mobs aren't satisfied with apologies anymore. They have clearly been escalating the offensive in the war of ideas for some time," McKeon said. "Is it any wonder that events spun out of control and that American lives were lost?"
Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) also released a scathing attack likening Obama to President Jimmy Carter and his mishandling of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980, saying Obama was "the weakest and most ineffective person to ever occupy the White House."
Emily Cadei, Meredith Shiner, and Frank Oliveri contributed to this report.
Updated, Sept. 14
This report has been updated to reflect the changing reports on the person who produced the anti-Muslim film at the heart of the protests in the Arab world.