Romney's Libyan gamble

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Media captionRomney: Administration was 'wrong' to stand by statement

A sombre President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton by his side, appeared in the Rose Garden to condemn what he called the outrageous and shocking attacks which killed the US ambassador to Libya and three others.

He paid tribute to the "extraordinary Americans" who were killed and said the US "rejects all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, but there is absolutely no justification for this sort of senseless violence. Nothing."

It was inevitable that these attacks, in Libya and Egypt, have become political in an election year.

In a way they go to the heart of the practice and theory of the Obama foreign policy. They also raise immediate questions about why there wasn't more protection for the embassies, particularly on the anniversary of 9/11.

But the Republican candidate Mitt Romney has seriously raised the stakes by an immediate, very strong, attack on the president's administration.

'Political football'

The president has the huge advantage that when politics is in play he can try to rise above it simply by appearing presidential.

The secretary of state appeared pretty presidential too, with a very strong statement, a short while before, melding a tribute to the ambassador, condemnation of the attack and an assertion of American greatness.

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Media captionUS President Barack Obama: "There is absolutely no justification for this type of senseless violence"

Mitt Romney is a candidate and didn't have the protection of great office to protect him.

He'd made the attack on the Egyptian embassy a part of his election campaign before the Libyan attack happened.

It is central to his case against the president that he has repeatedly apologised for America and that he is too soft on its enemies.

He seized on a statement issued by the US embassy in Cairo, which condemned "the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims - as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions".

Mr Romney called this "disgraceful".

The White House said it had not authorised the embassy statement but this morning at a news conference, before the president spoke, Mr Romney stepped up his attack.

He said that Mr Obama bore responsibility for statements by his embassies and this one was "akin to an apology" adding it was a "terrible course to apologise for American values" and the White House was sending mixed signals.

He's taking a big risk using these tragic attacks to further this political argument, and some are already outraged.

The former ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk of Brookings, told CNN that it was a shame the tragedy was being used as a political football and that it was not appropriate.

There's no doubt that what happened in Cairo and Libya raises questions about President Obama's foreign policy.

What opponents see as a rejection of American exceptionalism and willingness to apologise for his country, supporters portray as an ability to foster alliances with a lower profile on the world stage and greater sensitivity to other cultures, Islam in particular.

Some will question whether that approach has paid off. The president's sporadic support for the Arab Spring saw its only military expression in Libya where these killings took place. Those who warned that America's enemies might have gain power when the dictators fell, will use this to suggest they were correct.

These are serious questions. But Mitt Romney has put a lot of weight on one press release and may find himself spending rather more time defending his own tactics than attacking the president's strategy.