WASHINGTON - Influential Republicans on Wednesday pushed back against the overwhelming perception in the press that Mitt Romney made a significant error in his response to attacks on U.S. embassies in Egypt and Libya on Tuesday.
"Mitt Romney's a challenger, and he has every right to criticize that horrendous statement made by our embassy in Egypt. In fact, failure to criticize it would be an omission," Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary for President George W. Bush, said in a phone interview with The Huffington Post.
"That statement was so horrendously misguided," Fleischer said, referring to a statement by the U.S. embassy in Cairo on Tuesday. The embassy issued the statement before protesters breached its walls and tore down the U.S. flag, but said after the attack that it still stood.
The embassy statement referred to a low-budget film believed to have sparked protests and said the U.S. condemned "continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions." It added that the U.S. rejected "the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others."
Fleischer did not want to talk about Romney's comments on Wednesday, which came after the news broke early in the morning that the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, had been killed during the protest outside the U.S. embassy in Benghazi.
"I saw the news coverage of it later. I didn't see it live," Fleischer said. "I just saw about a 15-second bite."
Fleischer also had praise for President Barack Obama's response to the attacks.
"Having distanced himself from that statement, he set a stately tone today, which is what commanders in chiefs and presidents can do," Fleischer said.
But Richard Grenell, a spokesman for four U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations who briefly worked on the Romney campaign earlier this year, had harsher words for the Obama administration.
"The absence of a condemnation or a statement from the Obama administration, for so long, is a weak response," Grenell said, adding that the White House should have denounced the attacks on Tuesday as soon as they happened.
"They waited when they should have immediately defended America," he said.
Grenell also criticized the debate that erupted in the aftermath of the attacks, which he said favored Romney.
“The American people are waking up to hear this terrible news while the media debate is whether or not Mitt Romney defended America too quickly or Obama waited too long," Grenell said.
On Wednesday morning, as Romney's harsh criticism from Tuesday night was jarringly juxtaposed with news of the death of Stevens and three others, reporters waited to see how Romney would respond during a morning event in Jacksonville, Fla.
At a press conference there, Romney doubled down on his criticism of the president, leading one Republican foreign policy expert, who spoke anonymously to BuzzFeed's Ben Smith, to label this a "Lehman moment" for Romney.
It was a tempting comparison. And Romney clearly found himself on Wednesday morning in a tense and uncomfortable position, as did Sen. John McCain during the 2008 economic crisis that kicked off with the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
The Washington Post editorial board wrote, in an item posted online Wednesday afternoon, that "it was stunning to see the GOP nominee renew his verbal offensive Wednesday morning, when the country was still absorbing the news of the first death in service of a U.S. ambassador since 1988, as well as the loss of three other Americans."
President Obama himself said that Romney's comments displayed a weakness for being rash.
"Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later. And as president, one of the things I've learned is you can't do that," Obama said in an interview with Steve Kroft of CBS News' "60 Minutes."
The initial optics of the situation were what led Weekly Standard founder Bill Kristol to acknowledge that "one can question the timing and tone of Mitt Romney’s statement last night," and "one can note he wasn't as fluent and clear as he might have been at his press conference this morning."
But Kristol firmly rejected any notion that Romney had blundered into a disaster scenario. In fact, he deemed it the opposite.
"Still, the fact remains that the events of September 11, 2012, represent a big moment for the country," Kristol wrote. "Romney is right to sense this, and to seize on this moment as an occasion to explain the difference between his foreign policy and President Obama’s. He’s right to reject the counsel of the mainstream media, which is to keep quiet and give President Obama a pass."
And many conservatives blamed the mainstream press for a rush to judgement colored by bias.
"So here's the question: Will media calm down, or has the entire press corps announced its intention to be MSNBC until 11/6?" conservative columnist John Podhoretz wrote on Twitter.
Similarly, conservative talk show host and blogger Hugh Hewitt tweeted that the "tug of war by MSM to try and avert attention from murder of Amb and Marines and Middle East meltdown appalling but very revealing."
But even some on the conservative side of the ledger voiced displeasure with Romney's conduct.
"Barack Obama looks a little more like Jimmy Carter today, but the problem is that Mitt Romney doesn't look more like Reagan," tweeted the Daily Caller's Matt Lewis.
Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan lowered the boom on Romney in an interview on Fox News, not long after his mid-morning press conference.
"In times of great drama and heightened crisis and in times when something violent has happened to your people, I always think discretion is the better way to go. 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," Noonan said.
"I don't feel that Mr. Romney has been doing himself any favors, say in the past few hours, perhaps, since last night," she said. "Sometimes when really bad things happen, when hot things happen, cool words or no words is the way to go."
The Romney campaign is betting that as the details of the attacks in Libya and Egypt emerge -- as grotesque pictures of Stevens' body being carried through the streets of Benghazi are seen by more Americans -- the visceral horror of what unfurled there will drive public opinion over to sharing Romney's immediate outrage.
And certainly it may not have been immediately clear to some on Wednesday morning that Romney's statement on Tuesday was criticizing the embassy's embrace of its original statement, not the original statement itself, and that it came at a time when news reports had confirmed the death of at least one American and the White House had yet to respond to the incident publicly.
However, blasting away at the president as though he is directly responsible for the words of embassy staff thousands of miles away struck some as a reach.
Romney stood by his argument.
"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.
"The embassy is the administration," he said. "The statement that came from the administration was a statement which is akin to apology and I think was a severe miscalculation."
Kristol, who recently criticized Romney for not mentioning the sacrifices of U.S. military personnel in his convention speech, said the Republican nominee should capitalize on the turn of events.
"Will Romney follow up this moment with sober foreign policy statements and substantive speeches? Will he put behind him once and for all two misconceptions that have bedeviled his campaign—that foreign policy is a distraction, and that, when Romney does dip into foreign policy, it's enough simply to take swipes at Obama?" Kristol wrote. "If Romney can prove both strong and thoughtful on foreign policy over the next few days, it could be an inflection point in the presidential campaign."