WASHINGTON — Steady drips of information about a horrific night in Libya are fueling Republican arguments and ads designed to fire up the conservative base and undercut the Democrats' early favorite for president in 2016.
Democratic and Republican strategists sharply disagree on the issue's power to influence elections next year and beyond. But after eight months of trying, Democrats are still struggling to move past last September's terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, which killed ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Democrats insist that an independent inquiry, the dismissal of several State Department officials, and nine congressional hearings leave little new to say on the matter. But Friday turned up the sort of nuggets that feed conservative activists' belief that a major scandal may still be at hand.
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Newly revealed communications show that senior State Department officials pressed for changes in the talking points that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice used a few days after the Benghazi attacks. These senior officials expressed concerns that Congress might criticize the Obama administration for ignoring warnings of a growing threat in Libya.
The White House has insisted that it made only stylistic changes to the intelligence agency talking points, in which Rice suggested that spontaneous protests over an anti-Islamic video set off the deadly attack. The new details suggest a greater degree of political sensitivity and involvement by the White House and State Department.
Rice and others eventually acknowledged that the Benghazi assault on Sept. 11, 2012, was a premeditated terrorist attack. Republicans say her Sept. 16 televised remarks were just the start of administration efforts to mislead Americans about what happened in Libya.
The Benghazi violence was heavily politicized from the start, occurring less than two months before President Barack Obama's re-election. Moreover, the secretary of state at the time was Hillary Rodham Clinton. The former senator and first lady infuriates many conservatives and ranks high in speculation about the Democrats' 2016 presidential nominee.
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Friday brought another round of conservative broadsides against Clinton, Obama and the administration's handling of the Benghazi matter. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a possible Republican presidential contender, wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Times restating his view that Obama should have fired Clinton.
Campaigning later in Iowa, Paul said he thinks the Benghazi affair "precludes Hillary Clinton from ever holding office."
The conservative group American Crossroads released a 90-second video asking if Clinton was "part of a cover-up." The video, like emails and letters from several other groups, asked for political donations.
The Benghazi tragedy hands Republicans a host of political opportunities, although none without complications. It may be difficult for average voters to sift through the chronology, assess blame, or even follow the logic of GOP arguments.
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For instance, claims that Clinton and others ignored calls for greater diplomatic security in Libya might be linked to the four American deaths. But accusations about the post-attack talking points — which sometimes seem to dominate the current debate — have nothing to do with possibly preventing the deaths, thus robbing them of that moral heft.
Democrats note that a major independent inquiry into Benghazi, issued in December, found that the State Department badly mishandled security needs in Libya. But it blamed officials no higher than the assistant secretary of state level.
Republican strategist Kyle Downey said Benghazi already exposes a trove of Democratic vulnerabilities, which might grow as inquiries continue. He said Republicans should use the findings to challenge the competence, truthfulness and judgment of Clinton, Obama and other administration officials. Republicans, Downey said, should let the politics play out in terms of which charges gain the most traction.
Some strategists say the Benghazi narrative may prove more valuable for congressional Republicans in next year's elections than in 2016, which is far off. House Republicans, in particular, can seize on Benghazi to motivate their base and donors, and to fend off possible primary challenges from the right.
Democrats say Republicans are nakedly exploiting the Benghazi deaths, and voters won't like it.
"Republicans are a desperate party right now, trying to do whatever they can to dirty up the president to make some gains in 2014, and to dirty up Secretary Clinton because they're terrified she'll walk into the White House," said Democratic consultant Doug Thornell. "This is an attempt to keep their base together and motivated" after Obama's victories in 2008 and 2012.
Thornell predicted Benghazi will prove no more useful as a political "scandal" than did the highly criticized "Fast and Furious" gun-tracking program and the federally subsidized but ultimately doomed Solyndra energy company.
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White House press secretary Jay Carney has spent hours trying to dismiss GOP accusations, including those that Obama sought to hide the fact that Islamic terrorists were behind the Benghazi attack. "The whole effort here by Republicans to find some hidden mystery comes to nothing because the president called it an act of terror," Carney told reporters Friday.
Benghazi may remain a white-hot topic in many conservative regions and talk shows for some time. At Wednesday's hearing before the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., told relatives of the four Americans killed in Benghazi that her constituents "think about you all the time."
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