Romney and Obama prepare for their Wednesday-night debate, as Republican criticism continues over the White House's shifting accounts of last month's attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Libya.
LAS VEGAS — President Obama arrived here Sunday to prepare for the first presidential debate, leading in the polls nationally and in most of the critical states but still fending off Republican criticism over the White House’s shifting accounts of the deadly September attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.
After a rally at a high school, Obama plans to go into virtual seclusion at a lakeside resort hotel outside Las Vegas on Monday and Tuesday, where his staff will drill him for the encounter with Mitt Romney in Denver on Wednesday. Romney was similarly preparing for the debate but will mix in some campaigning Monday in Denver.
Aides to Obama were stingy with details about his debate strategy, though a campaign spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, told reporters not to expect him to match Romney in “zingers and special lines,” which she said the Romney campaign had been sharpening for months. Further playing down expectations, she said Obama had not been able to devote as much time to prepping because of events in the Middle East and elsewhere.
As Obama hunkered down, his aides continued to battle GOP criticism about the White House’s handling of the Benghazi attack, which the administration initially characterized as a spontaneous demonstration gone awry, and later described as an organized terrorist act by extremists with possible links to al-Qaida.
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Sen. Robert Corker, R-Tenn., labeled the administration’s changing accounts “bizarre.” In a letter to the director of national intelligence, James Clapper Jr., Corker questioned whether the compound was adequately secured before the attack, in which the ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans were killed.
On Friday, Clapper’s office issued an unusual statement, acknowledging that the intelligence agencies “revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists.”
That statement, however, did little to quell the questions being raised on Capitol Hill. Much of the criticism is directed at the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, who offered the most detailed preliminary assessment of the Sept. 11 attack, describing it a few days later as a “spontaneous reaction” to protests in Cairo that erupted after the circulation of an anti-Islam video on YouTube.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, has called for Rice’s resignation, saying her statements were misleading. White House officials said the ambassador based her characterization on the latest intelligence available in the hours after the attack.
Two prominent Democratic senators — Harry Reid, the majority leader, and John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee — rushed to Rice’s defense, accusing Republicans of politicizing the attack.
“Instead of pointing fingers through unfounded partisan attacks, we should focus on bringing to justice those who carried out this attack and ensuring that those who serve at our embassies are safe,” Reid said in a statement. Kerry, who has called for a State Department investigation of embassy security, said, “We need to drop the politics and pull together and bring the killers of Chris Stevens and our fallen heroes to justice.”
The administration welcomed scrutiny of the security of U.S. embassies, insisting that the safety of diplomats was a top priority for Obama. Security at diplomatic facilities around the world was being reviewed, Joshua Earnest, White House deputy press secretary, told reporters Sunday.
“I recognize, particularly in this political season — and here we are nearing October in an election year — that there are going to be people who are going to be asking politically motivated questions,” Earnest said. “I can tell you that the president is not focused on the politics of the situation, he’s focused on the safety and security of our diplomats.”
But, pivoting immediately to politics, Psaki asserted that Romney’s proposed budget would cut money for security at American embassies. “This raises … into question what their priorities are, too,” she said.
The Romney campaign kept up the pressure, accusing the administration of mixed messages. Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, said on “Fox News Sunday” that the administration’s response to the attack was “slow, it was confused, it was inconsistent.”
Later in the interview, Ryan complained that the Romney campaign was fighting an uphill battle because the news media were tilted toward Obama. “I think it goes without saying that there’s definitely a media bias,” he said.
“I think most people in the mainstream media are left of center, and therefore they want a very left-of-center president (more) than they want a conservative president like Mitt Romney,” Ryan said. He did, however, acknowledge that the Republican campaign has had its flaws, including what he described as Romney’s “inarticulate” comments about people who pay no taxes and receive government help.