Romney softens on Libya, hardens economic critique

Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign event at Van Dyck Park, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012, in Fairfax, Va.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign event at Van Dyck Park, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012, in Fairfax, Va.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

(CBS News) FAIRFAX, Va. - In his first rally since attacks in the Middle East thrust foreign policy to the forefront of the presidential campaign, Republican nominee Mitt Romney on Thursday attempted to shift the focus back to the issue he hopes will decide the election: the economy.

Just one day after Romney accused the Obama administration of "sympathizing" with protesters who attacked U.S. embassies in Cairo and Benghazi, Romney simply offered condolences for the four diplomats whose lives were lost. When a heckler briefly interrupted him and accused him of trying to "politicize" the tragedy, Romney scrapped a planned moment of silence. "One gentleman doesn't want to be silent so we're going to keep on going," he said.

Romney did stay on offense at his rally in this Washington suburb, but his target was President Obama's economic performance. He cited to disappointing numbers that he said Obama avoided talking about during his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.

"I would have expected that with 23 million Americans out of work or having stopped looking for work or underemployed, I would have expected that when the president gave his address at the convention a couple weeks ago, that he would have spoken about the unemployed, but he didn't," Romney said to an audience of more than 2,500 gathered at a park.

Romney pointed to declining median income and unemployment levels that have remained above 8 percent throughout the president's term and argued that his policies have "led to a larger and larger gap between the wealthier and the rest of America."

"How in the world he can go before a Democrat convention and speak to the nation and offer nothing but more of the same is beyond me," Romney said.

(Watch: Romney heckled, skips moment of silence.)

In a convention speech devoted mostly to economic goals for the future, Obama did mention income stagnation and the unemployed, though he said the problems were longstanding. "By 2008, we had seen nearly a decade in which families struggled with costs that kept rising but paychecks that didn't," he said. He also said "millions of innocent Americans lost their jobs" in the Great Recession, which started in December 2007.

Romney underscored his renewed economic focus with a series of press releases keyed to breaking news ("Obama economy needs yet another bailout" by the Federal Reserve) and a new TV ad contending that Obama is "failing American workers." The ad says China is beating the United States on manufacturing jobs and accuses Obama of failing to crack down on China for "cheating."

"Cheating occurs if you hold down your currency," Romney said in his stump speech. By keeping its currency low, he said, China makes its products artificially cheaper than American goods, driving U.S. manufacturers out of business. He also accused the country of stealing technology from America. "They steal our technology, they hack into our computers. They also steal our know-how, our patents," he said, later adding to sustained applause, "We're going to make sure China understands we mean business."

Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said that if Romney were serious about holding China accountable, "he wouldn't have criticized the president for standing up to China to protect American tire workers," among other things.

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    Sarah Huisenga is covering the Mitt Romney campaign for CBS News and National Journal.