FAIRFAX, Va. -- One day after criticizing President Obama in the hours following the announcement of the deaths of four U.S. diplomats, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney softened his tone on Thursday, and focused on grieving.
"I know that we've had heavy hearts across America today, and I want you to know things are going to get a lot better. But I also recognize that we're in mourning. We've lost four of our diplomats across the world. We're thinking about their families and those that they've left behind," Romney said, at the beginning of a rally with roughly 2,700 supporters here in Northern Virginia.
Then, as Romney continued to lament the loss of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, and the three others killed in Benghazi, a heckler distracted him.
"What a tragedy, to lose such a wonderful, wonderful, uh," Romney said, as the heckler began to yell, "Why are you politicizing Libya?"
Romney continued, "wonderful people that have been so wonderful."
The crowd chanted the heckler down, and then Romney made a decision that if he held a moment of silence, it would be disrupted by the protester.
"And so I would offer a moment of silence but one gentleman doesn't want to be silent so we're going to keep on going," Romney said.
Romney's comments came one day after he leveled a blistering critique at the president just hours after Stevens' death was announced. It was an apparent acknowledgment by Romney that he may have struck an off-note on Wednesday, when he spoke briefly about mourning the Americans' deaths but spent most of his time blasting Obama's approach to foreign relations.
Romney criticized Obama's foreign policy on Thursday, but more subtly and more broadly, making it an issue of leadership. He recounted a conversation with former Polish President Lech Walesa.
"He said, 'The world needs American leadership,'" Romney said. "Where is American leadership? We need a strong America. Where is American leadership? And I intend to lead an America that is strong, that helps lead the world."
"As we watch the world today sometimes it seems that we're at the mercy of events instead of shaping events, and a strong America is essential to shape events," Romney said. "The world needs American leadership. The Middle East neads American leadership. And I intend to be a president that provides the leadership that America respects and will keep us admired throughout the world."
Romney also made a somewhat confusing reference to conflicts abroad, in the context of knocking Obama's inaction so far to stave off cuts to the Pentagon budget, which are set to take effect next year under a budget deal reached last year.
"Ever since FDR we've had the capacity to be engaged in two conflicts at once, and he said no we're going to cut that back to only one conflict," Romney said. "And so he's put in place, cancelled almost a trillion dollars with his budget cuts and the sequestration cuts, you'll have almost a trillion dollars of cuts to our military. If I'm president of the United States we will restore our military commitment and keep America the strongest military in the world."
But one day after striking a defiant stance over his initial quickness to criticize the president, Romney steered clear of potentially controversial remarks. After addressing the issue of America's standing in the world early on, most of Romney's speech focused on how he will fix America's economy and restore jobs. It was a somewhat disjointed pivot by the Republican, as he now appears to be taking a wait-and-see approach to developments overseas, which continue to unfold. Anti-American protests have erupted in Tunisia and Yemen in the last 24 hours.
Before the rally, Romney supporters said they agreed with the Republican's initial reaction to the attacks on the embassies.
"Romney came out tough and I think that's necessary. Obama's a wimp," said Valerie Conway, 56, a stay-at-home mom.
John Solwell, 74, a retired engineer, agreed, referencing President Teddy Roosevelt's maxim to "speak softly and carry a big stick," and charging that "this president doesn't even have a stick."
Solwell said he was worried, however, about Romney's chances this fall, because too many voters would make their choice based on "charisma." Polls show Romney and Obama in a dead heat in Virginia.
"I think that people are going to vote for personalities rather than issues," Solwell said.
"I think people are disenchanted enough," he added, regaining some optimism as he spoke. "How many people do not vote that voted for Obama in 2008? I think that will make the difference."
Conway said she was worried that criticism of Romney's response to the events overseas was going to hurt his political prospects.
"I'm a little anxious," she said.