WASHINGTON, Oct 16 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney locked horns on Tuesday over last month’s deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya, engaging in their angriest exchange yet on an issue that has become a flashpoint in the final weeks before Election Day.
Moving aggressively to regain lost ground after a weak performance in the first presidential debate, Obama fought back against his rival’s accusations that he had played down the Sept. 11 assault in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Seeking to dent Obama’s national security credentials, Romney attempted to use the incident to cast Obama’s entire Middle East policy as a failure and raise questions about his foreign policy prowess.
But Obama came out swinging in their second debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, accusing Romney of exploiting the Benghazi attack in an effort to score “offensive” political points and suggesting he was unfit to become America’s commander-in-chief.
“While we were still dealing with our diplomats being threatened, Governor Romney put out a press release,” Obama said, referring to the Republican’s initial criticism of the administration’s response before the full extent of the bloodshed was known.
Obama and Romney argued testily in front of a group of undecided voters over whether Obama had come out fast enough in describing the Libya attack as terrorism.
Obama pointed out that he had in fact called it terrorism. A transcript of his remarks in the White House Rose Garden the morning after the attack show Obama said: “...no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this nation.”
But despite that comment, some of Obama’s top aides had initially attributed the Benghazi violence to protests over an anti-Islam film and said it was not premeditated, before finally
acknowledging much later that it was a terrorist attack.
Obama said for the first time on Tuesday he was “ultimately responsible” for the safety and security of the Americans killed in the attack. “I‘m the president and I‘m always responsible,” he said.
Romney and Republicans have seized on the administration’s shifting explanations of the events in Benghazi, saying: “It took them a long time to say this was a terrorist act by a terrorist group.”
Going on the offensive, Obama sought to cast Romney, who has little foreign policy experience and has stumbled during his occasional forays on the world stage, as ill-prepared to take on the role of commander-in-chief in a dangerous world.
Obama repeated his vow to hunt down those behind the attack.