- Associated Press - Thursday, September 13, 2012

WASHINGTON — GOP White House nominee Mitt Romney toned down his criticism of President Barack Obama’s handling of a diplomatic crisis Thursday and returned to an economic argument with a spirited speech and television ad accusing the president of failing American workers.

The change in message brought Romney back to an issue where he is seen as stronger and away from a touchy debate in the midst of the unfolding international emergency that brought him criticism even from some Republicans.

Romney did not repeat his assertions from a defiant news conference a day earlier that Obama had apologized for American values in response to the upheaval abroad. Rather, he spoke broadly about the need to strengthen American leadership overseas and in economic matters at home, and warned that Obama was undercutting U.S. military might.

“His policies have not worked,” Romney said. His new television ad accuses Obama of losing jobs while China is gaining.

Polling shows voters see Romney, a former businessman, as a stronger leader on economic issues and Obama, who ended the Iraq war and led the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, as stronger in foreign affairs.

Romney advisers said there was a sense in the campaign as unrest unfolded in the Arab world that Romney needed to be decisive and swift in his response to distinguish himself from the president’s tone — which Romney calls apologist — on some foreign policy matters.

Romney had suggested that Obama was weak and didn’t react quickly enough to condemn attacks on U.S. missions overseas that eventually left an ambassador and three other Americans dead. He was criticized in some political and foreign policy circles for the tone, substance and motives of his response, but was backed up Thursday by Sen. John McCain, who said the president’s “feckless foreign policy” has weakened America.

At Romney’s speech in Fairfax, Va., a heckler yelled out: “Why are you politicizing Libya?” The crowd drowned him out with chants of “U-S-A” and supporters nearby tried to place a Romney/Ryan placard in front of his face. The man ripped up the sign and was escorted out.

Obama responded to Romney’s attacks on the diplomatic crisis by suggesting the Republican is reckless and untested as a world leader. Obama accused him of having “a tendency to shoot first and aim later.”

The campaign barbs came as protesters angered by an anti-Muslim film from a California filmmaker took to the streets and attacked U.S. missions in Libya, Egypt and Yemen. The Obama administration has dispatched two warships to the Libyan coast, ready to respond to any mission ordered by the president. Obama told voters while campaigning in Colorado Thursday that the killers would be brought to justice and that protecting Americans serving abroad is one of his highest priorities.

Obama blamed Republican leadership in the past decade for problems in the economy and asked for another term to continue working on them. “We’ve got so much work to do because there’s still a lot of folks out there hurting,” Obama said.

Babington reported from Golden, Colo. Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in Boston and Ben Feller in Fairfax, Va., contributed to this report.