PENSACOLA, Fla. Undeterred by President Obama's debate zinger that the military has evolved beyond "horses and bayonets," Mitt Romney on Saturday argued that voters shouldn't simply brush off the GOP candidate's argument that the Navy needs more ships.
Romney has argued for months, often before pro-military crowds, that increasing the number of ships is crucial to America's future security. But in one of the most memorable moments of Monday's foreign policy debate, Obama responded that the military no longer relies on "horses and bayonets," just as it doesn't have as many ships as it once did, because "we have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them."
But at a rally in this military-dependent city, Romney said he stands by his assertion that the Navy "is now smaller than anytime in, well, almost a hundred years," exposing a potential future vulnerability.
"A modern Navy is one of the critical elements that allows us to protect sea lanes and to keep the world more free and prosperous," he said. "I believe in a modern Navy, and that's why my plan is to increase the number of ships that we're building to maintain our strong commitment to our military."
Fact-checking organizations have disputed Romney on the ship-number claim. The Annenberg Public Policy Center noted earlier this year that at the time, there were more Navy ships than during the last four years of George W. Bush's presidency. In addition, defense analysts have warned that Romney's call for more ships could lead to cuts in other military branches.
Romney appeared at the Pensacola rally with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and 1st District GOP Rep. Jeff Miller, who blasted Obama's handling of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Fox News reported that security officers working for the CIA in Benghazi were twice told to wait before rushing to the compound after the attack. Fox also reported that U.S. officials refused when the security team asked for warplanes, which would have meant violating Libyan airspace. A CIA spokeswoman said in response that the agency acted quickly and said the claim that they were told to wait is untrue.
"America deserves a president that does not divide but unites this country," Miller said. "America deserves a president who understands its military and its weapons. American deserves a president that will not leave a United States ambassador and three others ... Mr. President, the phone rang and you didn't answer it."
Romney also repeated his desire to solve problems in bipartisan fashion, which drew an immediate rebuke from Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith. She repeated Democrats' criticism of Romney's unwillingness to ask for removal of an ad endorsing Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, whose recent comments on rape have caused a political firestorm.
"The American people shouldn't trust a word Mitt Romney says on his promise of bipartisanship," Smith said. "Over the last six years he's been running for president, he hasn't stood up once to the most extreme voices in the Republican Party - in fact, he catered to them. Just last week, he was even too weak to take down an ad endorsing a right-wing Senate candidate who said it's God's will if a woman gets pregnant as a result of a rape."
At a subsequent Florida rally in Kissimmee with Rubio and Rep. Connie Mack, Romney repeated his disappointment with what he said was his rival's inability to focus on the nation's biggest problems.
"He can't speak to the moments of consequence that this represents," he said. "He's talking about characters on Sesame Street and silly word games, and attacks me ... It's like, you know, there are other ways to go after me - just go after me with the truth, you don't need to make up things. But he makes things up he knows aren't true, and frankly, I think that's in part why his campaign isn't making much progress, is because people recognize this is a critical time."
CBS News' Matthew Shelley contributed to this report.