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Attacks Move Foreign Policy To Center Of Campaign

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And the attacks in Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world come in the midst of a presidential campaign. It became, in effect, a test of leadership for both the president and his Republican challenger. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: President Obama learned Wednesday morning that Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other diplomats were killed in the Libyan city of Benghazi. When he spoke in the White House Rose Garden hours later, he didn't mention politics.

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SHAPIRO: He stood with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and called for unity.

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SHAPIRO: He argued that this president's foreign policy has emboldened America's enemies by sending mixed messages.

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SHAPIRO: Other Republican leaders held fire, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

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SHAPIRO: House Speaker John Boehner ordered flags at the Capitol to fly at half-staff, and some Republicans wondered aloud whether Romney had gone too far. Peggy Noonan spoke on Fox.

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SHAPIRO: Senator John McCain's former chief of staff Mark Salter called Romney's response as tortured in its reasoning as it is unseemly in its timing. And Senator Dan Coats of Indiana was on CNN.

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SHAPIRO: Aaron David Miller is a Mideast expert who has advised secretaries of state in both parties. He says, in a situation like this, the incumbent president has a huge home court advantage. Romney responded in one of the few ways available to a challenger, says Miller.

AARON DAVID MILLER: I suspect Romney in a closely contested campaign in which they're trying to rally the base, plus pick a few disaffected independent voters could actually get some traction on this issue. Whether it's logical or not is another matter.

SHAPIRO: Later in the day, President Obama spoke to CBS News, and this time he took on his opponent directly.

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SHAPIRO: It's the first time foreign policy has taken such a prominent role in this presidential campaign. This is an issue where Democrats currently out-poll Republicans for the first time in decades. These attacks may be the biggest test so far of whether that will remain true through the election. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.