By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For Mitt Romney, it began late Tuesday as an aggressive effort to criticize President Barack Obama's policies in Egypt and Libya by portraying the administration as apologetic while mobs attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the embassy in Cairo.
By the end of the day on Wednesday, Romney's venture into a fast-moving foreign policy crisis that involved the slayings of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other diplomats had become a public relations debacle for the Republican's presidential campaign.
Obama ridiculed Romney as someone who has a tendency to "shoot first and aim later," and even fellow Republicans were saying Romney's attempt to spark a legitimate debate on Obama's policies could be seen as unsavory political opportunism.
Romney injected himself into the affair late Tuesday by blasting a statement by the U.S. embassy in Cairo in which U.S. officials criticized an anti-Islamic video that was leading to protests in Cairo, Benghazi and other Arab cities.
The embassy's statement was an apparent attempt to ease tensions in Cairo before protesters got out of hand. Later in the day, however, the protesters stormed the embassy walls and tore down the embassy's U.S. flag.
That was about the time that Romney, back in the United States, cited the embassy's pre-assault statement and said it was "disgraceful" that the Obama administration's first instinct in the Cairo episode had been to sympathize with the mob that attacked the embassy.
Romney reiterated that criticism to reporters on Wednesday morning - even after the scope of the attacks was clear in Cairo and in Benghazi, where U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others were killed.
"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," Romney said at a news conference in Jacksonville, Florida, still pushing the mistaken idea that the Cairo embassy's statement had been issued after the protesters had attacked the embassy.
Obama responded on Wednesday afternoon in an interview with CBS News, saying there was "a broader lesson" to be learned from Romney's comments.
"Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later," said Obama, whose administration distanced itself from the Cairo embassy's statement even as it emphasized that Romney had misunderstood when the statement had been issued.
"As president," Obama added, "one of the things I've learned is you can't do that. That it's important for you to make sure that the statements you make are backed up by the facts."
Asked whether he thought Romney's comments were irresponsible, Obama said: "I'll let the American people judge that."
Romney's remarks drew criticism from foreign policy analysts, Democrats and even some Republicans for breaking a longstanding tradition of rallying around a president at a time of crisis. Many also accused Romney of being too quick to try to make a political point out of what turned out to be a tragedy.
"They probably should have waited," former Republican senator John E. Sununu of New Hampshire said on MSNBC. "You look at the way things unfolded, you look at the timing of it, they probably should have waited."
'DOING HIMSELF NO FAVORS'
Romney's insistence on criticizing Obama's administration over Wednesday's events had Democrats recalling the Republican's gaffes during a trip abroad in July, and Republicans cringing at what many saw as a botched chance to raise questions about the effectiveness of Obama's policies in the Middle East.
Republican Peggy Noonan, a former speech writer for President Ronald Reagan and a Wall Street Journal columnist, said on Fox News that Romney was leaving himself open to accusations that he had exploited the attacks for political gain.
"I don't feel that Mr. Romney has been doing himself any favors in the past few hours," she said. "When you step forward in the midst of a political environment and start giving statements on something dramatic and violent that has happened, you're always leaving yourself open to accusations that you are trying to exploit things politically."
Running slightly behind Obama in opinion polls ahead of the November 6 election, Romney is under pressure to polish his foreign policy and national security credentials after his series of blunders during the July trip.
At that time, Romney angered Britons with questions about London's readiness to host the Olympic Games and Palestinians with comments about their culture differences with Israel.
At the Republican National Convention last month, he drew criticism for not mentioning the war in Afghanistan during the speech in which he accepted the party's presidential nomination.
SOME SUPPORT FOR ROMNEY
Obama opted for a cautious strategy in the series of Arab Spring uprisings that shook the Middle East last year. He steered clear of a dominant role for the U.S. military and drew criticism from Republicans at home for a lack of forceful leadership.
Several analysts said on Wednesday that Romney had fumbled his opportunity to attack Obama for first encouraging the overthrow of authoritarian leaders in Libya and Egypt and then failing to stem the growing tide of anti-U.S. Islamists.
"In every way, what has been happening is a reflection of the Obama administration's unwillingness to engage in serious U.S. policy throughout the region," said Danielle Pletka, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "We have no coherent policy in the Middle East."
Obama steered clear of the political storm over Egypt and Libya during an appearance on Wednesday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the White House, calling the attacks "outrageous and shocking" and pledging to work with the Libyan government to ensure justice was done.
Some Republicans tried to rally around Romney, and by extension his version of Wednesday's events.
"Governor Romney is absolutely right, there is no justification for these deadly attacks and we should never apologize for American freedom," U.S. Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina said.
Reince Preibus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said on Twitter on Tuesday night that "Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic."
Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, cautioned against political overreactions to foreign events.
"It may be the duty of an opposition candidate to criticize and challenge, but not at the cost of America's strategic interests, lasting relations with key nations in the Middle East, or somehow making this an issue that puts Christian against Muslim or the West against the Arab world," he said.
The protests in Libya and Egypt came on Tuesday as Obama spoke for an hour with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with the two leaders believed to be at odds over whether to launch a pre-emptive attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Romney met Netanyahu during his foreign trip in July and has talked tough against Iran as he seeks to court Jewish-American voters who traditionally support Democrats.
While Romney has been critical of Obama's approach on Iran, he has not spelled out what he would do differently.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by David Lindsey and Philip Barbara)