Staying on offense, despite a stumble. “The president lying about terrorism.”
An interior view of the U.S. consulate, which was attacked and set on fire by gunmen yesterday, in Benghazi September 12, 2012.
Image by Esam Omran Al-Fetori / Reuters
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Within minutes of Mitt Romney fumbling an attempt to attack the president on the Libya debacle Tuesday night, Republicans and Romney aides took the post-debate spin room and pledged an aggressive prosecution of the administration's handling of the attacks.
"I think you're going to see a lot more about the timeline coming out tomorrow," said Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer, referring to how the White House characterized the Benghazi attacks in the immediate aftermath. "I think then there's going to be a lot of clarity."
Spicer declined to discuss whether the RNC would put money behind an ad making their case, but added, "We will be forcefully making sure that the timeline is accurately communicated."
The moment that prompted the pushback came toward the end of the debate, when Romney accused Obama of dithering for two weeks before his administration agreed to call the attacks an act of terrorism. Obama responded by claiming he identified the attacks as terrorism in the Rose Garden the day after. As Romney tried to rebut the claim, moderator Candy Crowley appeared to side with the president, saying, "He did in fact sir... call it an act of terror."
Obama chimed in, "Can you say that a little louder, Candy?"
It was a tactical blunder for Romney on an issue for which Obama has been widely criticized. And while Crowley later hedged her fact-check — saying Romney was "right in the main" that the White House muddled its theory of the attacks, but that the Republican chose the wrong instance to highlight — producers across the country were already adding the clip to debate highlight reels across.
Asked how the exchange would impact the Romney campaign's foreign policy message in coming days, top campaign surrogate John Sununu insisted it would only help them.
"I think in an odd way, the president lying about the terrorism issue [in the debate] makes it a lot easier for the campaign to hammer it home," Sununu said.
He also added a dig at Crowley — something Romney's senior aides deliberately avoided — saying, "the governor got blindsided a little bit by a moderator who incorrectly tried to affirm what the president said."
Sununu said he expected to see the campaign make an assertive case in the coming days that Obama bungled the Libya fallout. Already, the talking points were taking form in the spin room.
Senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said he "loved this exchange on Libya, because the president was playing dodgeball on Libya. He insisted the day after the attack, he described it as an act of terror. He did not."
Similarly, Romney adviser Stuart Stevens argued, "I think it hurt the president... Do we really want a president who, the day after an ambassador was murdered for the first time in 30 years, he gets on a plane and goes to a fundraiser in Las Vegas?"
And Republican National Convention chairman Reince Priebus said Obama "point-blank lied to the American people."
The Republican choice to litigate Romney's misstatement is in effect a decision to stay on offense, no matter what. With less than three weeks to go until polls close — and a final presidential debate that will focus entirely on foreign policy next week — the Romney campaign don't want to risk losing all momentum by going on defense.