WASHINGTON -- The partisan political divide over the potential nomination of UN Ambassador Susan Rice to be secretary of state intensified Sunday with Republicans questioning her fitness for the job and Democrats defending her.
Republican senators said they remain deeply concerned over Rice's statements about the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, and suggested her motive was to help President Barack Obama's re-election chances. Democrats, meanwhile, said they saw no reason the statements should disqualify her if she's nominated.
At issue is the explanation Rice offered in a series of talk show appearances five days after the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Rice has conceded in private meetings with lawmakers that her initial account -- that a spontaneous demonstration over an anti-Muslim video produced in the U.S. triggered the attack -- was wrong, but she has insisted she was not trying to mislead. That account was provided by intelligence officials who have since said their understanding of the attack evolved as more information came to light.
Appearing on Sunday talk shows, two of Rice's fiercest critics, Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), said Rice's account went beyond talking points that the intelligence agencies gave her.
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For one, they noted she had said that security at the Benghazi mission was "strong, substantial and significant." That statement "was not supported by the talking points," Ayotte said, noting that Rice was privy to more than just the unclassified material she discussed on television, including secret intelligence briefings that pointed to al-Qaida involvement in the attack.
"I think her story on 16th of September was a political story designed to help the president three weeks before the election, and she should be held accountable for that," Graham said. He added that Rice's comments were "a treasure trove of misleading statements that have the effect of helping the president."
Rice met with both Graham and Ayotte last week to explain the situation, but Graham said Rice "didn't do herself much good" in the encounter.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said he and others questioned whether Rice was acting as a diplomat or a "political operative."
Democrats, though, said Rice is being unfairly victimized for repeating erroneous talking points circulated by the intelligence community.
"Nothing that I have heard, in my mind, would disqualify her" from being secretary of state, said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).
All the lawmakers said they believed that inadequate security at the mission must be investigated and corrected so that Benghazi is not repeated.