Romney seized upon a news release from the U.S. embassy in Cairo — issued before deadly violence broke out in Egypt and Libya on Tuesday night — condemning an American-made, low-budget, anti-Islam film that infuriated Muslims.
In a statement from his campaign released shortly after the violence erupted — but before the death of U.S. Libyan envoy Chris Stevens was known — Romney hit President Barack Obama hard for the embassy's news release.
"It's disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks," he said.
In fact, the dispatch wasn't a first response to the violence — it had been sent out hours before protests began.
But Romney doubled down on that line of attack at a Wednesday news conference in Jacksonville, Fla., accusing the Obama administration of sending "mixed messages" to the Middle East and of making "an apology for America's values."
The White House had distanced itself from the embassy news release, although on Wednesday, Obama said the dispatch was an attempt by officials in Cairo to calm an increasingly tense situation in the city.
"It came from people on the ground who are potentially in danger," Obama said in an interview with CBS. "And my tendency is to cut folks a little bit of slack when they're in that circumstance, rather than try to question their judgment from the comfort of a campaign office."
Romney, however, said Obama is ultimately responsible for the news release.
"We join together in the condemnation of the attacks on American embassies and the loss of American life, and join in the sympathy for these people," Romney said.
"But it's also important for me — just as it was for the White House last night, by the way — to say that the statements were inappropriate and in my view, a disgraceful statement on the part of our administration to apologize for American values."
A Romney adviser told CBS News on Wednesday night that it's all part of Romney's intention to draw sharp contrasts between him and Obama.
His reaction was "meant to shine a light on the bigger world view we believe this president has, an 'apologize first' mentality, that it's America's fault the world is burning," the adviser said.
"That sort of weakness explains why we're seeing in part some of the difficulties in the Middle East."
Obama had a harsh rebuke for Romney in his interview, the entirety of which will air soon on "60 Minutes."
"Gov. Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later, and as president, one of the things I've learned is you can't do that," he said.
"It's important for you to make sure that the statements that you make are backed up by the facts and that you've thought through the ramifications before you make them."
Some Republicans joined the White House pile-on, calling Romney's reaction a ham-fisted attempt at foreign policy gravitas that could backfire badly in the weeks to come.
Romney's "rush to condemn Obama" was "as tortured in its reasoning as it is unseemly in its timing," said Mark Salter, a longtime aide to Arizona Sen. John McCain, the party's presidential nominee in 2008.
Peter King, the Republican chairman of the House of Representatives' committee on homeland security, said Romney was "right on the larger point," but added: "I probably would have waited a day or half a day."
Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, said Romney's "timing and tone" were questionable.
Ed Rogers, a longtime Republican strategist, penned an opinion piece on the Washington Post's website that maligned Romney's response.
"At this solemn, serious moment, Mitt Romney had to be crisp and precise. He was neither," he wrote.
"At times, Romney jumbled his words and appeared to be winging it. The president had to display stature and resolve. He did both .... I'm stunned that Romney didn't take more time to have a clear, well-delivered statement regarding our ambassador's murder in Libya."
The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan said on Fox News that Romney "has not been doing himself any favours … I always think discretion is the better way to go."
Granted anonymity, Republican critics were far more brutal, with one describing the presidential nominee as "not ready for prime time" in a Buzzfeed piece.
Others compared Romney to Sarah Palin, who was roundly accused of ignorance on foreign policy issues as McCain's running mate, and called the White House hopeful's reaction to the tragedy his "Lehman moment."
That's a reference to McCain's mid-September fumbles during the 2008 financial crisis, when he insisted the fundamentals of the U.S. economy were strong even as Lehman Brothers announced the largest bankruptcy in American history.
A series of McCain missteps on the economic meltdown were considered the beginning of the end of his presidential aspirations.
Buzzfeed also quoted a former George W. Bush State Department official as saying: "It wasn't presidential of Romney to go political immediately — a tragedy of this magnitude should be something the nation collectively grieves before politics enters the conversation."
Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, were skewered last week at the Democratic National Convention by Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, rumoured to be the next secretary of state if Obama wins a second term.
He called the pair the most "inexperienced foreign policy twosome to run for president and vice president in decades."
Romney was reportedly stung by the criticism; some pundits speculated Wednesday that he felt the Middle East violence provided him an opportunity to flex his foreign policy muscles in response to the barbs directed his way from Democrats gathered last week in Charlotte, N.C.
It was a failed attempt, according to Rogers.
"Somebody call Condi Rice and make Romney listen," he wrote.