WASHINGTON - A sudden eruption of anti-American turmoil in the Middle East poses challenges for both U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney, with both men facing tough questions about their foreign policy know-how less than 60 days before the Nov. 6 vote.
Romney was still on the hot seat Thursday for his assertion that the Obama administration sympathized with the forces storming Middle East U.S. embassies this week, while the president was facing even tougher, more substantive questions.
Does the United States have an intelligence gap in Libya that resulted in the slaying of U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens? Why was security seemingly so lax at U.S. diplomatic buildings in Libya and Egypt?
Was it a mistake for the U.S. to nudge Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, a longtime American ally, out of power? Why is the U.S. still regarded so poorly in the Muslim world after supporting pro-democracy rebels during the Arab Spring?
At a campaign stop in Colorado, Obama vowed again to catch those responsible for the deaths of Stevens and three other American diplomats, but didn't delve into the bigger issues at hand.
"We are going to bring those who killed our fellow Americans to justice," Obama said. "No act of terror will go unpunished.... Our task, as the most powerful nation on Earth, is to defend, protect and advance those values at home and around the world."
Half a continent away at his own campaign stop in Virginia, Romney was heckled by someone in the crowd as he attempted to soften his blistering stance of a day earlier by focusing on the loss of Stevens and three other American diplomats.
"I know that we've had heavy hearts across America today, and I want you to know things are going to get a lot better," he told a rally before a heckler starting shouting: "Why are you politicizing Libya?"
The man was shouted down by Romney supporters and escorted from the event.
Romney's gentler tone was considered a signal that the presidential hopeful has acknowledged the barrage of criticism levelled at him not just from Democrats but from those in his own party. His anti-Obama remarks as the drama was still unfolding overseas were roundly maligned as unpresidential and ham-fisted.
He didn't completely steer clear of barbs on Thursday, but they were of a subtler variety.
"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," he said.
"We have to have a military second to none and that's so strong no one would ever think of testing it."
To that end, Romney vowed to restore "our military commitment and keep America the strongest military in the world."
While Romney used broad brushstrokes in Virginia, other Republicans zeroed in on Obama.
Sen. John McCain, the party's presidential nominee in 2008, made the media rounds, accusing Obama of having a "feckless foreign policy" in the Middle East.
He was particularly critical of Obama's stances on Iran, Iraq and Syria. The Arizona lawmaker has long urged the White House to do more to help rebels fighting the Assad dictatorship in Syria.
"What this is all about is American weakness and the president's inability to lead," McCain, a so-called party war hawk rumoured to be unhappy about Romney's silence on Afghanistan, told NBC's "Today" show.
"Iraq is dissolving. Our relations with Israel are at a tension point. I'd like to see the president of the U.S. speak out for once for the 20,000 people that are being massacred in Syria. There's an absence of American leadership in the region and they are very weak."
The United States, McCain argued, won the war in Iraq but could end up "losing the peace."
"There's a belief in the Middle East that the United States is weak and withdrawing, and that's why you're seeing various countries and their leaders reacting because ... they believe the United States is leaving and this leadership is in a vacuum."
Liz Cheney, daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, penned an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, accusing Obama of having a weak economic record and "an even more dismal national security record."
"Apologizing for America, appeasing our enemies, abandoning our allies and slashing our military are the hallmarks of Mr. Obama's foreign policy," she wrote.
Other conservatives renewed one of their favourite lines of attack — comparing Obama to Jimmy Carter, a popular Republican whipping boy whose final months in office were stained by his ill-fated attempt to free Americans held hostage in Iran for months.
The conservative Washington Examiner said Obama's smackdown of Romney on Wednesday was rife with similarities to Carter's criticisms of Reagan during the Iran hostage crisis in 1980.
"Gov. Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later," Obama said.
At the Democratic National Convention 32 years ago, the Examiner pointed out, Carter had this to say as he accused Reagan of having a flimsy grasp on foreign policy issues: "It's a make-believe world. A world of good guys and bad guys, where some politicians shoot first and ask questions later."
Billionaire Donald Trump, an Obama foe who still insists the president's birth certificate is a fake, tweeted: "Deja vu — I can remember a time when our embassies were stormed under another failed president. Obama=Carter."
But one longtime political pundit rolls his eyes at the comparison.
"I scoff, scoff, scoff," said Stephen Hess, a one-time aide to Richard Nixon who worked for Carter during his transition to power in 1976.
"I lived through all of that, I was on the scene, and it is just so totally different. The two men, on a personal level, have next to nothing in common so what is the parallel? That Obama is weak? There have been things that Obama's been incredibly strong on, whose actions don't strike me as the actions of a weak person."
Carter's efforts to free the hostages did not lack spine, Hess added, but events conspired against him when a desert sandstorm resulted in U.S. military helicopters crashing amid an ill-fated rescue mission, killing eight American servicemen.
"It wasn't weakness, it was that he was an incredibly unlucky president," Hess said.
Other Republicans urged Obama to man up and take action on Thursday, particularly against Egypt.
Peter King, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives' homeland security committee, said Obama should suspend aid to Egypt until its president, Mohammed Morsi, makes "absolutely clear" he is condemning the demonstrations and taking "forceful action" to protect the U.S. embassy in Cairo.
John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush, said Obama should communicate privately to Egypt and Libya that if the violence continues, "we're cutting off all assistance."
"That message has to go all across the Middle East," Bolton said.