FAIRFAX, Va. (USA Today) -- Mitt Romney took a softer tone on foreign policy at a rally in Northern Virginia on Thursday, telling the crowd the world needs strong American leadership but avoiding any references to Wednesday's argument about the president apologizing for America.
"The world needs American leadership, the Middle East needs American leadership," he said.
Romney made only a passing reference to the conflicts in Libya and Egypt, one day after he came under fire for accusing the president of failing to have a strong reaction after the U.S. Consulates in Benghazi and Cairo were stormed by protesters Tuesday night. Four American diplomats, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed in the Libyan attack.
"Now we are in mourning. We've lost four of our diplomats across the world. We are thinking about their families and those that they've left behind -- what a tragedy," Romney said, before being interrupted by a protester in the crowd who yelled, "Why are you politicizing Libya?"
The crowd began chanting "USA!" to drown him out.
"I would offer a moment of silence, but one gentleman doesn't want to be silent," Romney said.
The GOP presidential nominee issued a statement Tuesday night accusing the Obama administration of defending those who attacked the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. The protests there were ignited by an American video that mocked the Islam prophet Mohammed, and the embassy condemned "the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims."
On Wednesday, after the administration confirmed the death of the four diplomats in Libya, Romney held a press conference and doubled down on his criticism.
"It's a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values," Romney said. "When our grounds are being attacked and being breached, the first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation." The White House has disavowed the original statement from the embassy in Cairo.
On Thursday, Romney avoided any reference to the controversy and instead made his usual case for a strong military -- comments that undoubtedly bear more weight in Northern Virginia, home to the Pentagon and thousands of people who work in defense-related industries. He also assailed impending military budget cuts and said the president would reduce American military capacity to the point the nation could fight only one war at a time.
"A strong America is essential to the world. It's essential to us and to our future but also to the world," he continued. "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. And a strong America, by the way, depends on a strong military."
Supporters who stood in the sunny parking lot waiting for Romney to speak were supportive of his comments Wednesday and said it could help him during the fall debates that he was willing to take a stand.
"Romney making a strong statement had nothing to do with the event, it's more about what this administration has failed to do," said David Metcalf, 52, a corporate pilot from Centreville, Va. "President Obama had an opportunity yesterday to make a strong definitive statement and he didn't and I think that's a problem."
Ken Stulik, 47, an IT consultant from Clifton, Va., said Romney could have a leg up in the debates "if he accentuates the fact that it is the failure of this administration to take positive, corrective or preventive action. ... He's got to frame it the right way."
Even though she agreed with Romney's comments, Carolann Fulk, 60, a registered nurse from Annandale, Va., said she wished Romney had waited until after the president spoke to respond.
"I think what he said was right, but I think chain of command, the president should speak first and then he could criticize the president after that," she said.
Lisa Laclede, 55, from Fairfax, nodded in agreement.
"It's like shooting off an e-mail before you think," she said. "Sometimes you just need to sit on it."
Romney is in a dead heat with Obama in Virginia, according to an average of recent polling by RealClearPolitics. Romney currently trails Obama nationwide, 50% to 44%, according to Gallup's seven-day rolling average polling.
A newly released Fox News poll showed Romney continues to trail Obama among women by double digits. The Romney campaign's attempt to close the 14-point gap was on full display in Fairfax, where all four speakers before Romney were female. As the GOP nominee spoke, he was framed by several rows of women standing behind him holding signs of support.
by Jackie Kucinich, USA TODAY