WASHINGTON — On a day mixing somber ceremony with campaign clamor, President Barack Obama on Friday eulogized four Americans killed in a suspected terrorist attack on a diplomatic post overseas while Republicans pledged a tougher foreign policy to confront U.S. enemies.
"They didn't simply embrace the American ideal. They lived it," Obama said of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others who died when the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was overrun this week. Four flag-draped containers holding the remains rested nearby, attended by Marines as the president vowed, "We will bring to justice those who took them from us."
Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney and running mate Paul Ryan also paid tribute to Stevens and fellow Americans Sean Smith, Glen A. Doherty and Tyrone S. Woods. But their text for the day added disapproval of an American foreign policy that they said lacked resolve.
With Romney facing criticism from some quarters that he had fumbled the issue earlier in the week, Ryan spoke the sharpest words. Pointing to recent events throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, he said, "We know who America is dealing with in these attacks. They are extremists who operate by violence and intimidation. ....Amid all these threats and dangers, what we do not see is steady, consistent American leadership."
The day's events unfolded a little more than seven weeks before Election Day, and as a spate of national and battleground-state polls pointed to modest gains for the president following the two parties' political conventions. Both campaigns say they expect the race to be decided by eight or nine states where neither man at this point has a decisive advantage.
Obama set a campaign trip next week to Wisconsin, Ryan's home state and one that Romney is working to turn competitive. The president won handily in 2008, but it still faces unemployment of 7.3 percent, a little below the national average in a slow-to-recover national economy
Like all presidents since the dawn of the television age, Obama is often at the center of moments of national mourning, and he readily assumed the role of consoler-in-chief for families of the four slain Americans. The ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base had little precedent — White House aides pointed to only one other like it, in 1998 — and when it was over, the bodies were taken to Dover Air Force Base where most of those killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been flown.
The ceremony had all the sad pomp that could be mustered.
Each transfer case was carried off the plane by seven Marines as Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta watched silently. Two of Clinton's Republican predecessors, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, also attended in a bipartisan show of respect for the dead and their survivors.
Moments after the ceremony ended, Romney told a campaign audience in Painesville, Ohio, that he had delayed his speech to watch on television. He led the crowd in a moment of silence "in recognition of the bloodshed for freedom."
Earlier in the day, at a fundraiser in New York, he accused Obama of failing to schedule a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, due in the United States later this month. He called it an "extraordinarily confusing and troubling decision," and added, "There have been over the years, confusing messages sent by the president of the United States to the world."
The White House has denied reports that Obama decided not to hold a meeting with the Israeli leader.
For the day, the campaign-long struggle over the economy was shunted to the sidelines but hardly suspended.
One day after Romney unveiled a television ad accusing Obama of "failing American workers" and ignoring unfair trade practices by China, the president's campaign responded in kind.
"He invested in firms that specialized in relocating jobs to low-wage countries like China," said the announcer in a commercial, referring to Bain Capital, the private equity firm Romney founded.
"Even today, part of Romney's fortune is invested in China," the narrator added. "Romney's never stood up to China. All he's ever done is send them our jobs."
Nor was the presidential race the only campaign drawing attention.
Republicans have expressed confidence they will be able to hold control of the House on Nov. 6, but the race for the Senate is anything but settled.
After a string of encouraging signs for the Democrats — including a near Republican meltdown in Missouri — the party's campaign arm was airing a television commercial assailing Republican Linda McMahon in a Connecticut race they had hoped would be safe for Rep. Chris Murphy.
Republicans returned the favor in Maine with an ad criticizing former Gov. Angus King, an independent seen as likely to side with Democrats if he wins the race. The seat is currently held by GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe, and her party can hardly afford to lose it and still gain the four seats needed to assure a majority in the new Congress.
Romney criticized Obama on foreign policy grounds two days after the GOP contender was taken to task by Democrats and some Republicans for his comments on an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
Nor were Obama's aides eager to let it go.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Romney and Ryan seemed to be trying scoring political points. "Now is the time when Americans should be coming together," he said.
As he spoke, anti-American protests had spread to around 20 countries. Demonstrators scaled the walls of embassies in Tunisia and Sudan, while Egyptian police fired tear gas to keep protesters away from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
Associated Press writers Kasie Hunt in Washington and Ken Thomas in Painesville, Ohio contributed to this report.