Obama, Romney sharpen their arguments for rematch over Libya

The Obama and Romney campaigns are preparing their candidates for the next campaign clash over last month's terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya — a political battle set to unfold Monday in the final presidential debate.

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Mitt Romney is widely seen as having lost the first altercation on Libya when he sparred during Tuesday's debate over President Obama's characterization of the Sept. 11 attack on the Consulate in Benghazi. 

The Libya attack has become a proxy in the broader campaign fight over each candidate's global leadership skills.

Obama said he'd called the assault in Benghazi an “act of terror” the day after it occurred, a statement that drew an immediate challenge from Romney.

The White House transcript confirms that Obama used the phrase “acts of terror” in his first public response to the Libya attacks on Sept. 12. 

He repeated the “act of terror” line on Sept. 13 in speeches in Las Vegas and Colorado. Debate moderator Candy Crowley sided with Obama during the debate, an intervention that seemed to throw Romney off his game.

Far from backing off in the debate’s aftermath, however, the Romney campaign made it clear Wednesday that it will use the president's own words against him during Monday's foreign policy debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

“[On Tuesday] night, the President continued to provide a shifting account of the attack in Benghazi on September 11,” the Romney campaign said in a statement. 

“Though President Obama tried to claim during the debate that he immediately characterized the attack as terrorism, he in fact made generic references to 'acts of terror.' And for weeks after it occurred, the Obama administration falsely and repeatedly stated the attack was a spontaneous reaction to a YouTube video, even sending its U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice on national television five days after the attack to link it to the video.”

The U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans were killed in the Benghazi attack. 

While Republicans believe Obama remains vulnerable over his administration’s shifting explanation of what transpired, Democrats have accused Romney of playing the issue for political gain before all the facts are even known.

An Obama campaign staffer said Romney's decision to zero in on the administration's description of the attack ignores the question of whether the overall U.S. policy in Libya has been a success. 

She pointed out that the Obama administration helped oust Moammar Gadhafi last year and that 30,000 Libyans took to the streets to demand militants surrender their weapons after Stevens's death.

“Yes, this was a terrible, awful tragedy,” the staffer told The Hill. “But I wouldn't say overall that the Libya policy has been how the Republicans are describing it.”

She hinted that the president would be ready Monday to put Romney on the spot to explain specifically how he would handle world affairs differently. 

Topics for the debate include America's role in the world, the war in Afghanistan, red lines on Iran's nuclear program, the changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism, and the rise of China and tomorrow's world.

“What we should be litigating is, OK, what would you do differently in the region? What would you do differently in Libya or Syria or Egypt?”

Some Republicans have accused the president of deliberately misleading the American people ahead of the elections in order to conceal setbacks in the fight against terrorism and efforts to create a stable Libya one year after Gadhafi’s death. 

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus on Wednesday called Obama “totally dishonest” for suggesting he had immediately denounced the attack as an act of terrorism. 

And Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said “nobody believes” that Obama's reference to “acts of terror” during a Rose Garden speech the day after the attack on the U.S. Consulate was a direct reference to the deaths of the four Americans.

“The significance is how you're going to call out extremism,” former Romney national security spokesman Richard Grenell told Fox News on Wednesday. 

“Are you going to immediately say that it's wrong, draw the lines of distinction, and then work towards solving that problem?”

The Director of National Intelligence has taken responsibility for linking the attack in Benghazi to a U.S.-made anti-Islam video, which prompted Rice's comments.

And the most recent on-the-ground reporting from Benghazi paints a far murkier picture of the attack than the narratives pushed by both Democrats and Republicans. 

While there indeed never was a peaceful protest prior to the attack, Bloomberg reported Tuesday, it appears a band of radical Islamists only loosely affiliated with al Qaeda were spurred to action by the anti-video protests in nearby Cairo, without much planning or forethought.

P.J. Crowley, a former State Department official, said Republicans have rushed to judgment on Benghazi before all the facts are known. 

“Here's the irony here: There's all this ... (political) 'stuff' going on, to quote the vice president (during last week's debate), and yet no one yet has the whole picture,” Crowley, a former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, told The Hill. “We need to let the investigation take its course. Find out exactly what happened. And then we can figure out what to do about that.”

Crowley noted that initial reporting or intelligence has been wrong before. 

“Here's a corollary,” he said. “We invaded Iraq in 2003, and it took more than a year before the judgment emerged that there weren't weapons of mass destruction.”

The lack of definitive answers hasn't stopped either campaign from trying to score political points.

During Tuesday's debate, Obama lambasted Romney for criticizing a press release put out by the U.S. embassy in Cairo that sought to quell mounting anger over the video before violent protests broke out in Egypt.

“While we were still dealing with our diplomats being threatened, Gov. Romney put out a press release, trying to make political points, and that's not how a commander-in-chief operates,” Obama said. “You don't turn national security into a political issue. Certainly not right when it's happening.”

Vice President Biden doubled down on that line of attack on Wednesday.

“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.”

Romney, for his part, used the debate's one question about foreign policy to attack Obama on a wide range of issues, from the civil war in Syria to Iran's nuclear program. 

“The president's policies throughout the Middle East began with an apology tour” and a “strategy of leading from behind, and this strategy is unraveling before our very eyes.”

What neither candidate did was answer the question actually asked of them in the debate, which had to do with the State Department's responsibility for rejecting Ambassador Stevens's requests for more security before the Sept. 11 attack. 

The department acknowledged its role during a House Oversight panel hearing last week.

Some Republicans say Romney missed an opportunity to go after Obama by focusing too narrowly on the shifting timeline. 

Max Boot, a Romney defense policy adviser, said he hoped next week's debate will give Romney a chance to use the Benghazi attack “to talk about some of the drawbacks of President Obama's foreign policy in general.”

“I hope that we have more of that discussion … so that the debate doesn't get narrowly focused on when Obama called it an act of terrorism or whatever,” Boot, a senior fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Hill. 

“I think there are larger issues there ... having to do with why was there not better security at the Embassy, and why was there not better security in Libya in general, a country where we helped to bring down the government but didn't really have a plan for” the next phase.