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Obama, Romney campaigns ease off Libya debate as administration's story changes

 

As the Obama administration's initial explanation of last week's deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya appears to unravel, both presidential campaigns were curiously quiet Thursday -- with the Obama campaign deferring to testimony from a day earlier and the Romney campaign declining to criticize the president. 

The White House on Thursday called the assault a terrorist attack, after officials initially declined to use that term for more than a week. And the administration's claim that the strike was not pre-planned continued to be called into serious question as new evidence emerged of possible Al Qaeda ties. 

But Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt, in an interview with Fox News, gave no indication that President Obama would address the American public anytime soon about the issue and deferred to remarks a day earlier by a top counterterrorism official. 

And Mitt Romney's campaign has said little about this other than to stress the importance of bringing the killers to justice. 

Asked Thursday about the evolving version of events in Libya, Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said: "Governor Romney believes our immediate priority in Libya is to track down and bring to justice those terrorists who brutally murdered our diplomats. The attack is a clear reminder that terrorists, particularly those linked to Al Qaeda, remain a grave threat and one that is growing in North Africa."

The Romney campaign appears to have dialed back on Libya since the candidate first criticized the U.S. Embassy in Cairo last Tuesday for a statement that allegedly sympathized with those protesting over an anti-Islam film. 

"I think they're gun shy," Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said. 

Bonjean was referring to the wall of criticism the Romney campaign faced -- from the media and the Obama campaign -- after the initial statement criticizing the embassy in Cairo. Romney defended those comments and went on to criticize Obama's foreign policy strategy in the aftermath of the Libya attack. 

But Romney and Obama on the campaign trail have since turned almost exclusively back to the economy. 

The latest back and forth pertains to two online videos. In one, Romney seems to dismiss the "47 percent" of people who don't pay federal income taxes, saying they see themselves as "victims" and will only support Obama. The other online clip features audio of a young Obama appearing to embrace "redistribution." 

The Twitter pages for both Romney and his campaign show little to no activity on Libya since last week. 

Bonjean said he thinks Romney is "letting the situation develop" before he speaks in any definitive terms on it again. That's not necessarily a bad move, he suggested. 

"I think what they're doing is not taking the shovel away from the Obama administration on the Middle East while they're still digging a hole," he said.

Bonjean said Romney might eventually make hay out of the changing story -- particularly at next month's presidential debate on foreign policy -- but until then, he said it would be best for surrogates to do the attacking. Still, he said it might be appropriate for Romney to say something on Libya in the near future about the importance of the American public knowing the facts about what happened. 

Republicans on the Hill are far less "gun shy" about criticizing the administration. 

Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told Fox News it was "irresponsible" for the administration to send U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice for a round of Sunday show interviews in which she called the attack "spontaneous."

"They had to know at that time that there was terrorist elements involved," King said. "The Obama administration wants us to think that the war against terrorism is over, that the president's policies have worked, that we have nothing to worry about from Al Qaeda. That is dangerous, irresponsible and it was wrong." 

And the Republican National Committee has been flagging the administration's changing statements. In an email Thursday, the RNC asked whether the administration was "deliberately lying" about the facts of the attack.