Will embassy attacks be a U.S. election game changer?

The attacks on the American embassies in Egypt and Libya have jolted the U.S. presidential campaign and could have political ramifications for the November election.
Egyptian protesters climb the walls of the U.S. Embassy during protests in Cairo on Sept. 11. (Canadian Press)

The attacks on the American embassies in Egypt and Libya have jolted the U.S. presidential campaign, as foreign policy, which had been mostly neglected, has suddenly become a major focus.

Whether it remains a key issue over the next couple of months remains to be seen, but if events continue to unfold in the Middle East, they could have political ramifications for the November election, analysts say.

"This could become a new defining moment for the campaign or it could fade away in a week," Larry Sabato, professor of politics and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told CBC News.

"I'm old enough to remember when the Iranian hostages were seized. Most of the commentary at the time suggested it would be resolved very quickly. I remember those stories: 'This is going to be resolved in a matter of days,' Yep, 444 of them."

The recent attacks are said to have been sparked by anger over an American film that negatively depicts the Prophet Muhammed as a fraud. On Tuesday, protesters climbed over the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, pulled down the American flag and replaced it with an Islamic banner.

Meanwhile, the protests turned more violent in Benghazi, Libya, resulting in the deaths of  the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.

Boost support for Obama

Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report, told CBC News that, at least in the short term, the attacks could boost support for U.S. President Barack Obama.

"There’s a rally-around-the-flag effect where people tend to be supportive of the president as our national figurehead," Rothenberg said. "The immediate reaction is, 'Well, I'm going to stick with my president.,"

Rothenberg added that the events give Obama, who does have foreign policy experience, an opportunity to talk about his national security record. As well, the attacks take the focus away from dismal job numbers.

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But Rothenberg said Obama could run into trouble if the crisis continues over a period of weeks or months.

"If the situation deteriorates, and suddenly there are questions raised about his effectiveness and his toughness, and his success in the international area, then he could have a problem."

The attacks have already sparked a war of words between the two campaigns. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who continues to lag behind Obama in polls about foreign policy, went on the offensive.

He seized on a statement coming from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Tuesday night that condemned not the protesters, but the "continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims."

Romney countered with his own statement, saying  it was "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."

Romney: White House sending mixed signals

The White House distanced itself from the U.S Embassy statement, saying it had not approved those comments. But Romney on Wednesday charged that the Obama administration was sending out "mixed signals" and that it was responsible for all comments. 

Democrats slammed Romney, accusing him of politicizing the issue. Obama, in an interview with 60 Minutes, said Romney didn't have his facts right, and that he "seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later."

Some Republicans also thought Romney had jumped the gun. Columnist and former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan said she didn’t think Romney was doing himself any favours.

"Sometimes when really bad things happen, when hot things happen, cool words or no words is the way to go," she told Fox News.

Many top Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, all expressed condolences to the victims and outrage over the attacks without criticizing the Obama administration.

'Could be game changer'

However, GOP strategist Alex Castellanos praised Romney, telling CNN that "this could be a game changer."

"Romney has to go at this and make it clear that he is doing it not for political gain but because weak, apologetic leadership is dangerous for the country."

Sabato said the Romney campaign was "trigger happy" and should have held off to see how the situation unfolded.

"But that doesn't mean he still can't use it if Obama handles it badly," Sabato said. "That's the down side of incumbency. You actually have to do something. Whatever you do, people can criticize. Either you do too much or you do too little, or what you do has has unintended consequences."

The impact of the embassy attacks on the election may also depend on who really is responsible. There are reports that the attacks may have been a co-ordinated strike by al-Qaeda groups. If that is the case, Obama could respond militarily, which would boost his support as the country rallies behind him.

"If it turns out that they can trace the targeted attack on [U.S. Ambassador] Chris Stevens to a jihadi camp or an organization, they will respond, probably with airstrikes," Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told CBC News.  

Miller said Americans would rally behind the president, giving him huge support, and boosting his presidential image.

"Running for president from a campaign bus in Iowa is one thing. Running for president from the White House with all the perks, the stage, the theatrics is quite another," Miller said.