VAN METER, Iowa — On a push to expose his softer side, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on Tuesday revealed his intimate connection to the attack last month in eastern Libya that left four Americans dead.
Call it a case of mistaken Christmas parties that led Romney to meet Glen A. Doherty, a former Navy SEAL who was killed in the Sept. 11 attack at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.
Republicans, including Romney, have cited the attack to criticize President Barack Obama's foreign policy. The attack also was the centerpiece of Romney's high-profile, foreign policy speech Monday at the Virginia Military Institute.
But Romney waited a day to share his ties to the events in Libya, telling his story at a rally in Iowa, one of a handful of battleground states where he has been getting personal to help persuade undecided voters to support him.
The story begins with a chance encounter at a Christmas party in southern California in 2009 or 2010. He couldn't be sure which.
On a blustery day on an Iowa cornfield, Romney explained that he had gotten a flier at his home in southern California for a neighborhood Christmas party. He hadn't planned on going but, after noticing a party getting started at a house almost across the street, he and his wife, Ann, changed their minds and decided to pop over.
It wasn't until after dinner that they realized they were at the wrong house.
"Turns out, this wasn't the neighborhood party. This was a family having a party with their friends," Romney said as his audience laughed. "We were a little embarrassed but they treated us well nonetheless and I got to meet some really interesting people."
Then the story turns serious, as has become the custom in Romney's campaign speeches in recent days.
At rallies in Florida, Virginia and now Iowa, he has swapped the tales of hard-working entrepreneurs that had filled his speeches for months in favor of anecdotes about people in his life who have died. He talks about a 14-year-old leukemia patient, a quadriplegic classmate and an American soldier killed last year in Afghanistan.
Then there is Doherty, the former Navy SEAL Romney met at a party he wasn't supposed to attend.
Both were from Massachusetts. Both enjoyed skiing. And Doherty, who was 42 at the time of his death, talked about his work in the Middle East for a private security company after he finished his tour of duty as a Navy SEAL.
"You can imagine how I felt when I found out that he was one of the two former Navy SEALs killed in Benghazi on Sept. 11," Romney said in Iowa, pausing to stay composed. "It touched me obviously as I recognized this young man that I thought was so impressive had lost his life in his service of his fellow men and women."
Also killed were U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, diplomat Sean Smith, Doherty and Tyrone S. Woods, another former Navy SEAL.
The attack in Benghazi initially created a political headache for Romney, whose campaign issued a statement condemning the U.S. response before the severity of the violence was known. Romney was widely criticized by both Democrats and Republicans for trying to gain politically from the loss of four American lives.
In recent weeks, Obama's critics have questioned the administration's handling of the situation. Officials initially blamed what happened on a spontaneous protest they said was sparked by reaction to an anti-Islamic video that ridiculed the Prophet Muhammad and ignited mob protests at U.S. diplomatic posts across the Middle East and in North Africa.
The administration later said what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack carried out by al-Qaida-linked militants.
In the foreign policy speech Monday, Romney returned again and again to Benghazi.
"I want to be very clear: The blame for the murder of our people in Libya, and the attacks on our embassies in so many other countries, lies solely with those who carried them out – no one else," he said. "But it is the responsibility of our president to use America's great power to shape history – not to lead from behind, leaving our destiny at the mercy of events," he said. Unfortunately, that is exactly where we find ourselves in the Middle East under President Obama."
His tone Tuesday in Iowa was very different.
Romney said he learned that Doherty was in another building across town when he and his colleagues found out the consulate was under attack.
"They went there. They didn't hunker down where they were in safety. They rushed there to go help," Romney said. "This is the American way. We go where there's trouble. We go where we're needed. And right now we are needed. Right now the American people need us."