Ominous thunderclouds hung over Jacksonville, Florida, this morning as Republican Mitt Romney’s campaign motorcade rolled southward along Interstate-95. Not a full-length presidential motorcade, but close enough, with all the trappings — motorcycle escorts leading the way and an ambulance trailing the procession — and all the backed up traffic behind it that comes with such Secret Service-ushered transit.
One day and 11 years to the date the nation was attacked by terrorists from abroad, a morning on which the U.S. envoy to Libya was reported dead in an attack on a consulate, Romney was racing to his first campaign appearance of the day. He would add an impromptu press conference at his campaign headquarters in Jacksonville, in the most reliably Republican region of the biggest swing state of all. Florida is fast becoming a must-win for a candidate contesting President Barack Obama in just eight states, and perhaps a ninth, in Wisconsin.
The president was preparing to make his own statement at the White House — voicing, on this urgent morning, a message reminiscent of what his predecessor said at a schoolhouse in Florida on the morning of 9/11: Those who attacked the U.S. will pay the price.
And suddenly, on this morning less than two months from Election Day, the one issue that has played only a small role in the contest between Obama and Romney would dominate the day: Foreign affairs, and the posture of the U.S. in a dangerous world.
Obama was informed last night that Ambassador Christopher Stevens was among the missing in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. This morning, he was told of his death, according to a White House official.
But before all the facts were known, the Romney campaign launched an attack on the Obama administration last night for supposedly sympathizing with the attackers.
In a statement that was was initially embargoed for midnight, but then lifted at 10:25 pm EDT, Romney said: “It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.” He was referring to a statement from the U.S. embassy in Cairo denouncing a breach of the grounds there as an act by “misguided individuals.”
Less than two hours later, but once the calendar had flipped from Sept. 11, the Obama campaign responded.
“We are shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya Governor Romney would choose to launch a political attack,” Ben LaBolt said in an e-mail blast to reporters at 12:10 am.
Overnight, Libyan authorities reported that Stevens, a career diplomat who worked with the Libyan opposition, was dead.
At 7:21 am, Obama made a statement, confirming the death. “I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens,” Obama said in that statement.
The president went to the Rose Garden later this morning, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by his side, to condemn the attacks, vow vengeance and pledge to work with the Libyan government to bring those responsible for the killings to justice.
“These four Americans stood up for freedom and human dignity,” the president said of Stevens and three other victims.
Romney, for his part this morning, maintained that the Obama administration had sent “mixed messages” after Islamist protesters breached the grounds of the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Romney told reporters in Florida: “The first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation.”
The campaign largely has steered around the terrorist threats that dominated the terms of predecesor George W. Bush — muted by the Obama-ordered, Navy SEAL attack that captured and killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Romney managed to accept his party’s nomination for president in Tampa without mention of the war in Afghanistan, an oversight repaired with a muscular address on foreign affairs in Reno, Nevada, this week.
Nevada — the president is bound there, too. He spent the weekend in Florida, where Romney follows today. Former President Bill Clinton campaigns across Florida for Obama this week.
They’re fighting on familiar battlegrounds, and today there is new ammunition.
With reporting by Hans Nichols, Roger Runningen, Lisa Lerer and Phil Mattingly