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Egypt embassy protests: Will Mitt Romney's comments matter in November? (+video)

Gaffes spoken in haste on the campaign trail can fade. But an inaccurate statement, geared for political advantage at a time of national crisis, could have a longer impact on the presidential race.

By Staff writer / September 13, 2012

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney makes comments on the killing of US Embassy officials in Benghazi, Libya, while speaking in Jacksonville, Fla., on Wednesday.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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Will Mitt Romney’s comments on the Middle East matter to voters when they go to the polls on Nov. 6? That’s a question roiling the US political world in the wake of the tragic killing of the US ambassador to Libya and continued riots outside American embassies in the region.

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Washington Editor

Peter Grier is The Christian Science Monitor's Washington editor. In this capacity, he helps direct coverage for the paper on most news events in the nation's capital.

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Democrats say Mr. Romney has hurt himself with hasty and inaccurate remarks about a situation he doesn’t appear to understand. Republicans reply that their standard-bearer is forcefully highlighting the fecklessness of President Obama’s foreign policy.

Our view is this: This uproar probably won’t make any more difference in the end than previous media obsessions over shiny baubles such as Romney’s (nonpublic) tax returns. Except ... foreign policy is a serious matter. In that sense, the electoral outcome of this incident is less predictable than that of purely domestic flaps.

As the estimable University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato notes, it’s still seven weeks until Nov. 6, which is plenty of time for this to disappear completely from voters’ minds. But what if the crisis deepens? On Thursday, riots spread to Yemen. In that context, it is possible that a rally-around-the-flag effect will help Mr. Obama. It is also possible that the situation will appear to spin out of the incumbent’s control, giving an advantage to Romney.

“Int’l chaos favors incumbent POTUS short term,” tweeted Mr. Sabato on Thursday morning. “Yet events can spin in many different directions. Best bet: Unsettled calm, campaign moves on.”

To recap, on the evening of Sept. 11, Romney issued a statement condemning what he characterized as the Obama administration’s “sympathy” for the rioters storming the walls of the US Embassy in Cairo. He based this on a tweet from the Embassy itself – sent prior to the breach of security – that reaffirmed US support for religious tolerance in light of the crude anti-Muslim film that had inflamed the mob.

The Embassy tweet had not been cleared by the White House. Minutes before Romney’s statement, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton issued her own release condemning the violence and saying there was no justification for the Middle East attacks.

Subsequent events showed the situation in Libya in particular was more serious than it first appeared. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died in an assault that US officials now suspect was planned by organized, armed militants, and perhaps by Al Qaeda itself.

Then at a press conference on the morning of Sept. 12, GOP nominee Romney doubled down on his critique.

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