The Republican presidential candidate used the attacks to launch a stinging rebuke of the Obama administration, accusing it of being “disgraceful” after the US embassy in Cairo condemned the “misguided individuals who hurt the religious feelings of Muslims” rather than the attacks.
The state department said the embassy had made the statement before the attacks and was actually responding to the growing protests against an inflammatory US-produced film that portrayed the Prophet Mohammed as a womaniser and child molester.
Speaking in between solemn televised statements by President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, about the death of the US ambassador to Libya, Mr Romney sought to cast the Obama administration as weak because of its response to the protests in Egypt.
“It is a terrible course for America to apologise for our values,” said Mr Romney, referring to the statement by the embassy in Cairo that was critical of anti-Muslim sentiments, which he said was contrary to the idea of freedom of speech.
“They clearly sent mixed messages to the world. And the statement that came from the administration . . . was a statement which is akin to apology and I think was a severe miscalculation.”
Mr Obama made no mention of politics when he spoke about the attacks from the White House lawn, but later on Wednesday characterised his Republican rival as ill-equipped to be commander-in-chief.
“There’s a broader lesson to be learnt here: Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later,” Mr Obama said in a pre-scheduled interview with CBS television.
“And as president, one of the things I’ve learnt is . . . it’s important for you to make sure that the statements that you make are backed up by the facts and that you’ve thought through the ramifications before you make them.”
Mr Obama has sought to portray his Republican rival as inexperienced on international matters – dismissing him last week as “new to foreign policy” – while playing up his own successes abroad, including ending the combat mission in Iraq and ordering the killing of Osama bin Laden.
John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee and chairman of the Senate’s foreign relations committee, hit out more directly at the Republican.
“Frankly I don’t think he knows what he is talking about,” said Mr Kerry, who last week accused Mr Romney of being a “neocon”.
The incident has brought foreign policy issues to the fore in an election campaign where Mr Obama is enjoying a bounce in the polls following last week’s Democratic national convention.
The Republican team has talked little about foreign policy and Mr Romney was sharply criticised for not even mentioning the war in Afghanistan during his speech to last month’s Republican convention.
His attempt to score political points from the events in Egypt and Libya was immediately condemned by Democrats and also some Republicans.
One Republican foreign policy heavyweight called it “campaign malpractice of the worst form”.
“At a time when foreign policy is coming to the forefront of the campaign, when we have a huge opening on foreign policy with the [Netanyahu] visit, the Romney campaign is instead talking about this,” he said, citing the Obama administration’s decision not to arrange a meeting between Mr Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister who is visiting the US next week.
Richard Armitage, a former Bush administration official and a foreign policy adviser to Republican John McCain during his 2008 presidential bid, said: “I bet the Romney camp wishes it had those initial statements back so they could now express the proper condolences for the loss of life of our diplomats.”
Notably, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, the Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, issued statements condemning the attacks without reference to partisan politics.
Although the economy remains the number one issue for the election, analysts said that Mr Romney’s missteps could hurt him in a race where Mr Obama appeared to be gaining a slight edge.
“There had been a perception that Romney was a moderate and had a chance of winning swing voters,” said David Rothkopf, editor-at-large of Foreign Policy magazine and a former Clinton administration adviser.
“But there is a now lot of evidence that he is like other voices on the far right of the party. I don’t think that the American people are ready to re-elect Dick Cheney,” he said, referring to George W. Bush’s vice-president, who pushed for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Indeed, one of the few people to defend Mr Romney on Wednesday was Donald Rumsfeld, the Bush administration defence secretary
“The attacks on our embassies & diplomats are a result of perceived American weakness,” Mr Rumsfeld wrote in a tweet. “Mitt Romney is right to point that out.”