FAIRFAX, Virginia — Republican nominee Mitt Romney paid tribute Thursday to four American diplomats killed in Libya, and while he steered clear of President Barack Obama's handling of the crisis he said US power was vital in the Middle East.
Romney sparked a furor late Tuesday and Wednesday when he offered quick and blunt criticism of steps the Obama administration took to try and tamp down a rapidly escalating protest in Cairo, Egypt, amid swirling regional violence that ended up claiming the life of the US ambassador to Libya.
"I know that we have heavy hearts across America today," Romney said while campaigning in swing state Virginia, near the US capital.
"We've lost four of our diplomats across the world, we're thinking about their families and those that they've left behind."
But while calling the deaths "a tragedy," Romney did not repeat some of his earlier accusations that the Obama administration was apologizing for American values and sympathizing with the protesters.
Instead he shifted to one of his broader themes on the campaign trail, that the United States under Obama is no longer projecting the military might and strength it did in the past.
"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 told about 2,700 supporters in a suburban park.
"The world needs American leadership. The Middle East needs 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, a former governor of Massachusetts, hammered Obama for trimming the military budget by nearly half a trillion dollars over the next decade, given that defense spending will increase at a slower rate than it did under the last Republican president, George W. Bush.
The White House hopeful also sought to blame the president for another half trillion in automatic defense cuts that will kick in next January if Congress does not act, though both Republicans and Democrats agreed to that reduction.
The moves will cut into what Romney described as the Pentagon's decades-old "capacity to be engaged in two conflicts at once."
Romney told the crowd he had prepared to hold a moment of silence for US ambassador Chris Stevens and the three others killed in an attack Tuesday in Benghazi, Libya, but opted to carry on with his speech when a protester interrupted him several times before being escorted away.
The Republican instead seized on poor economic news, including a report that median income has declined by $4,300, to say four years of Obama's policies "have not worked."
The multimillionaire former businessman, who has endured criticism that he is out of touch with everyday voters, then mentioned something he rarely discusses on the campaign trail: the rich-poor gap.
Obama's presidency has "led to a larger and larger gap between the wealthier and the rest of America," Romney said.
The Romney campaign, which is trailing Obama slightly in the polls, has repeatedly said the November 6 election will be a referendum on the president's economic record.