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Presidential candidates spar on Benghazi attack

In a particularly spiky moment in Tuesday night’s debate, US presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney sparred on the September 11, 2012, Benghazi attack, sparking a rebuttal by the moderator and some rule-breaking applause.


Everyone knew it was coming.

The spin ahead of Tuesday night’s US presidential debate foreshadowed a likely wrangle between the two candidates on the September 11, 2012, attack that killed the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.

True to expectations, the Benghazi attack emerged as one of the testier moments in an already feisty debate, one that had the candidates verbally sparring and even drew the moderator to rebuff an assertion - an unusual intervention in US presidential debates.

The moment came toward the second half of the debate, shortly after US President Barack Obama, while responding to a question, noted that the day after the attack, he “told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened, that this was an act of terror”.

When Republican candidate Mitt Romney was given a chance to respond – “just quickly” as the moderator, CNN’s Candy Crawley, put it – he repeatedly, and theatrically, asked Obama if he recognised it as an “act of terror”. A visibly irritated US president replied “please proceed” – twice.

'Can you say that a little louder, Candy?'

But when Romney told the audience that Obama took “14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror,” the reaction from his Democratic rival was swift.

“Get the transcript,” jabbed back Obama.

At which point, Crawley – a veteran US political correspondent – said to Romney, “He did in fact, sir,” said Crawley. “He did call it an act of terror”.

Her interjection drew laughter and applause from the audience – in violation of debate rules.

“Can you say that a little louder, Candy?” shot back the US president to more laughter from the audience.

On eve of debate, Clinton attempts damage control

But there was very little hilarity between the two US presidential candidates on the subject of the attack in Benghazi that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

A day before the debate, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took responsibility for the attack in what was widely viewed as an attempt to cushion her boss from a blow that was expected at Tuesday’s debate.

“I'm in charge of the State Department's 60,000-plus people all over the world," said Clinton in an interview with CNN. “The president and the vice president wouldn't be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals.”

Following Obama’s lacklustre performance in the first debate, Republicans had focused on the Benghazi attack in an attempt to puncture Obama’s security and foreign policy credentials.

As US intelligence agencies continue to investigate the attack, there have been often conflicting reports on the causes and the nature of the attack.

Initial reports suggested the attack was a spontaneous response to an anti-Islam video produced by the Egyptian immigrant in the US. But subsequent reports, based on testimonies by Libyan witnesses and militia officials, have suggested the attack by Islamist militants in the eastern Libyan city could have been premeditated.

Obama plays commander-in-chief, wins the round

Tuesday night’s tete-a-tete was a display of how election year stakes have overshadowed the nuances of a complicated situation on the ground in a country beset with enormous security risks.

Reporting from New York shortly after the debate, FRANCE 24’s Nathan King called the exchange on the Benghazi attack “a classic example of how this debate played out tonight.”

King – like many commentators and pundits – believed that on this one, Obama won the round. “He had the high ground – and he took it. He is the president and he could say to the contender, you’re playing politics with this, while in the White House of course you never play politics with this sort of stuff,” said King.

Although the Benghazi attack provided some of the more memorable contentious moments, it was not a major issue in Tuesday’s debate, which focused on domestic issues.

But it is likely to dominate the third and final US presidential debate, scheduled for October 22, which will focus on foreign policy. Expect more testy moments to come.


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