By Jonathan Easley and Alicia M. Cohn - 10/17/12 04:47 PM EDT
Surrogates for Mitt Romney and President Obama battled Wednesday over a pivotal moment in the second presidential debate in which moderator Candy Crowley corrected an assertion by the GOP nominee about the terrorist attack in Libya.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) rebuked Crowley for saying Obama was right in stating that he called the attack a “terrorist act” on Sept. 12, arguing the CNN journalist inappropriately inserted herself into the debate.
Other Republicans said Crowley was wrong with her facts, and doubled down on their message that the Obama administration bungled its message on the attack and was now lying about its response.
Vice President Biden and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), in separate interviews, accused Republicans of politicizing the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which left U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others dead. They argued Romney and other Republicans were misrepresenting Obama’s statements and positions.
The exchange over Libya was perhaps the most dramatic moment during Tuesday night’s debate. Romney was visibly surprised by Obama saying he had called the attack an “act of terror” during Sept. 12 remarks in the Rose Garden.
The administration initially linked the attack to protests in other countries over an anti-Islamic video, and it wasn’t until Sept. 19 that National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen became the first member of the administration to call the Libya assault a terrorist act.
“You said in the Rose Garden, the day after the attack, it was an act of terror? It was not a spontaneous demonstration? Is that what you're saying?” Romney said Tuesday night. “I want to make sure we get that for the record, because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.”
"Get the transcript," Obama replied.
Crowley then broke in, saying Obama did call the attack an “act of terror” in the Sept. 12 Rose Garden remarks.
“Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” Obama shouted.
“He — he did call it an act of terror," Crowley said as some in the audience applauded.
While Crowley went on to say it took the administration two weeks to debunk the idea that the assault was related solely to the video, the exchange seemed to throw Romney off his game for the next 10 minutes of the debate.
The transcript cited by Obama leaves it unclear whether he was referring specifically to the Libya attack, to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks or to both.
Obama actually used the phrase "acts of terror" in the Sept. 12 remarks, stating that "no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for."
The president made that comment after referencing both the Benghazi attack and the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Chaffetz on Wednesday sought to turn the attention to Crowley, who defended her interjection as an attempt to move Romney and Obama along.
“When you have two candidates disagreeing, it's not the role of the moderator to say, 'Mr. President, you're right' or 'Gov. Romney, you're right,’ ” Chaffetz said to Crowley during a roundtable on CNN's “Starting Point.”
“It wasn't necessarily your place to try to be fact-checker right there,” Chaffetz said. “I happen to think that your assessment of that was wrong, and so I was a bit frustrated on that particular point.”
Romney supporters argue that Obama’s remark about “acts of terror” was a reference to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, not Benghazi.
"It was a passing comment about acts of terror in general, it was not a claim that this was a result of a terrorist attack," GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan said on ABC's "Good Morning America." "Nobody believed at that Rose Garden speech that the president was suggesting that particular attack was an act of terror."
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus went further, saying Obama was “totally dishonest” in his representation of events at Tuesday’s debate.
“The point here is that this president has been totally inconsistent, if not dishonest, about what happened in Libya, chose for whatever reason to come out of the gates claiming that this was a spontaneous attack instead of first finding out what the real story is,” Priebus said on MSNBC’s "Daily Rundown." “This is the United States of America, and for our State Department to be saying one thing, the White House to be saying another, it’s like an episode of the Keystone Cops with these guys … the president can’t seem to get the story straight — he was totally dishonest last night.”
Biden argued Obama’s response to Romney’s attacks that the administration had misled the public over Libya was strong and represented the “most powerful moment in the debate.”
He also argued the GOP challenger was exposed for trying to “politicize the tragedy.”
“Their strategy seems to be to try to make it appear that the president didn’t know or didn’t care or was lying,” he said. “The fact is the president was clear — we are going to get to the bottom of this; the whole world will know it.”
Kerry also charged the GOP with politicizing the issue.
“The bottom line is this: The president called it an act of terror, and Mitt Romney last night tried to tell him he didn’t, and Candy Crowley had to hold him accountable for that,” he said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
“Don’t play games with national security. Before anybody knew the facts, Mitt Romney was politicizing the issue ... you don’t do that if you’re running for president. You get the facts. He criticized this administration and accused them of creating this event before he even knew what the full measure of the event was. That’s not presidential; it’s not the leadership we need,” Kerry added.
The two sides have less than a week to prepare for another round of questions about Libya. The third and final presidential debate next Monday will focus exclusively on foreign policy.
This story was posted at 10:47 a.m. and updated at 12:47 p.m.