Republicans and Democrats alike came down hard on Mitt Romney Wednesday for an act of political opportunism when the White House hopeful said the Obama administration "sympathized" with attackers in Egypt.
The results of the assault on the US embassy in Cairo were not known when Romney fired off a sharply worded statement late Tuesday condemning President Barack Obama for his team's handling of the situation.
The crisis was later compounded when the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed in a separate attack on the US consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi.
On Wednesday, after the White House condemned both attacks, Romney doubled down on his remarks, saying the administration "was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt instead of condemning their actions."
"It's never too early for the United States government to condemn acts on Americans and to defend our values," he said in Jacksonville, Florida.
Romney, a multimillionaire former businessman and one-time governor of Massachusetts, is trailing Obama in the polls with less than eight weeks to go until the November 6 election -- and the president did not pull punches.
"There's a broader lesson to be learned here: Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later," Obama told CBS.
"And as president, one of the things I've learned is you can't do that -- 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."
Romney revived his longstanding accusation that Obama has spent much of his first term "apologizing for America," and many diplomats, advisers and experts were left uncomfortable by the statements, including the one Tuesday which had been embargoed for midnight but was then released 90 minutes early.
"The theatricality of holding a comment until midnight in many ways made the comment less relevant than the presentation of it. You wind up getting caught up in process, and then that becomes the story," Victoria Coates, former foreign policy adviser for vanquished 2012 Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, told AFP.
Romney has been criticized before on foreign policy issues, notably when he branded Russia as America's top geo-political foe and made a series of mis-steps during a recent trip to Britain, Israel and Poland.
Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat who served several presidents and rose to the number three job in the State Department under Republican George W. Bush, said he was distressed by Romney trying to score political points.
"I was, frankly, very disappointed and dismayed to see governor Romney inject politics into this very difficult situation where our embassies are under attack, where there's been a big misunderstanding in the Middle East, apparently, about an American film, where we're trying to preserve the lives of our diplomats," Burns said on MSNBC.
"This is no time for politics."
One former diplomat offered far blunter criticism.
"He's a businessman, he doesn't know crap about foreign policy," the ex-diplomat told AFP.
Conservative commentator Erick Erickson said in a post on Twitter that Romney "must be delicate" in handling such matters.
But Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, was anything but, saying in a tweet that "Obama sympathizes with attackers in Egypt. Sad and pathetic."
Criticism from Democratic lawmakers has been swift and severe.
"At a time when we should be standing together against these senseless acts of violence, Mitt Romney offered an atrocious political response that undermines our unity in the face of threats to Americans around the world," Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg said.
Respected national security specialist Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, issued a warning to cool the political rhetoric or risk playing into the hands of extremists.
"It may be the duty of opposition candidate to criticize and challenge, but not at the cost of America's strategic interests," he said in a CSIS e-letter.
"This is precisely the goal of those violent Islamic extremists that are our real enemies. They want this polarization."
Coates, the former Perry adviser, said she agreed with the substance of Romney's position, even if it was a less than artful delivery.
"It's a policy critique rather than a political attack. He sees a very dangerous policy being pursued," she said.
Brian Katulis, a Middle East expert at the National Security Network think tank, said Romney's rapid-fire, strident approach did him no favors.
"I don't think it engenders a lot of trust and credibility in his ability to serve as a commander-in-chief," Katulis said.
"It looks like he's trying to politicize a situation which is quite complicated."