WASHINGTON — It did not take long for Susan E. Rice and her champions at the White House to realize that the Republican furor over the Benghazi attack was not going away after the presidential campaign ended.
One of her fiercest critics, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, made that clear on the Sunday after the election when he said he would oppose any attempt to make Ms. Rice the secretary of state, citing the account she gave in television interviews of the terrorist attack in Libya, in which Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
According to senior officials, Ms. Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, and President Obama’s national security advisers agreed that she should meet with Mr. Graham and her other critics in the Senate. But the meeting has only complicated the effort to present her as a credible successor to Hillary Rodham Clinton when, as expected, she leaves the cabinet.
Far from clearing the air, Ms. Rice’s session last week with three Republican senators deepened their suspicions that she had shaded the truth about the attack for political reasons.
“What made it worse was that there were new questions that were not answered,” said Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who met Ms. Rice along with Mr. Graham and Senator John McCain of Arizona.
The ill-fated attempt at bipartisan outreach only highlighted the awkward limbo in which both Ms. Rice and the White House now find themselves over a potential nomination that by all accounts Mr. Obama has not signed off on.
Although Ms. Rice is still considered Mr. Obama’s favored choice to head the State Department, he is also seriously considering Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. So putting on a full-court press for Ms. Rice, some officials said, could inhibit the president’s room for maneuvering.
Still, in an effort to contain the damage, the White House has set up an ad hoc team to respond to the charges over Ms. Rice’s statements about the attack on an American compound in Benghazi on Sept. 11. It has tried to recruit prominent outsiders, like former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, and other cabinet members, like Mrs. Clinton, to come to her defense.
On Thursday, Mrs. Clinton said Ms. Rice’s statements on five Sunday TV news shows days after the attack were “based on the information that had been given to every senior official in our administration.” She added that Ms. Rice “made it very clear in her appearances that the information was subject to change.”
Ms. Rice’s most stalwart defender has been the president himself. He said last week that he did not worry about what “folks say on cable news programs, attacking highly qualified personnel like Susan Rice,” though he added that he had not made any personnel decisions.
In the meantime, Ms. Rice has had to battle a steady drip of negative news: accusations about her record as a policy maker on Africa, her role as a senior State Department official in a 1998 terrorist attack on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and even her financial holdings.
The question is whether Ms. Rice, 48, can survive a confirmation battle after the drubbing she has taken from Republicans who seem bent on disqualifying her before she is named. Some Republicans said the White House had left her to fend for herself.
“They floated her name to test the waters; they found out that the waters are pretty rough, and then they didn’t give her a life preserver,” said Senator John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming on the Foreign Relations Committee. “Now, Republican senators all across the political spectrum have questions about her experience and judgment.”
“I think it is very uphill for her at this point,” he added. Republicans said the White House’s approach fits a pattern of not reaching out to Congress, whether on budget negotiations or to defend other appointments.
Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said the White House had not contacted her about Ms. Rice. After meeting with her last week, Ms. Collins expressed reservations about her suitability for secretary of state.
Ms. Collins said she did not believe outreach would have mitigated the issues that arose in their meeting, but she added that the White House generally had not engaged with Congressional Republicans in any meaningful way since the departure of Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Obama’s former chief of staff.
Friends of Ms. Rice, some of whom have voiced their frustration to the White House, said the administration had been distracted, first by the election and now by fiscal talks with Congress.
The White House, however, said that in addition to Mr. Obama’s very public defense of Ms. Rice, the administration had been working behind the scenes to push back on the negative reports and, through intermediaries, to change the narrative about the Benghazi episode.
In recent days, Ms. Rice’s defenders, who include former colleagues and staff aides, have begun their own counteroffensive.
They have pointed out that the Republican senators who criticized Ms. Rice for portraying the assault as a spontaneous protest, rather than a terrorist attack, co-sponsored a motion that said the site was “swarmed by an angry mob of protesters.”
After reports that Ms. Rice held investments in energy companies that have done business with Iran, journalists were pointed to evidence that Senator McCain also had holdings that included stock in an oil company that had been engaged with Iran.
As for Ms. Rice’s high net worth — between $23.5 million and $43.5 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — officials noted that Paul O’Neill, George W. Bush’s nominee for Treasury secretary, was swiftly confirmed in 2001, despite reporting $59.2 million in compensation the previous year.
When Ms. Collins asked whether Ms. Rice bore responsibility, as a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, for not bolstering the security of embassies in Kenya and Tanzania targeted in bombings in 1998, the White House circulated a State Department report on the attacks that did not mention Ms. Rice.
“In the long run, as these facts come out, the focus on Susan Rice has become even more absurd,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser.
If Ms. Rice is nominated, the White House will put together a team, as it did for Mrs. Clinton, to guide her through the confirmation process. It would probably assign a skilled political operative, like Stephanie Cutter, who helped Timothy F. Geithner through his arduous confirmation as Treasury secretary.
To some officials, the paradox is that Ms. Rice’s hard-headed approach to foreign policy — typified by her advocacy of military intervention in Libya — would normally appeal to hawkish senators like Mr. McCain.
“At a time when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down, Susan speaks to an affirmative view of what the United States would do around the world,” Mr. Rhodes said.
After the recent furor, however, it is not clear that the White House could get that kind of hearing for Ms. Rice. Senator Johnny Isakson, a Republican from Georgia, said the Benghazi episode had become too big a distraction for her to escape.
“If you go into a hearing on her nomination with a lot of the Benghazi stuff still hanging out there, that tends to be the primary topic instead of her vision for secretary of state,” he said.
The Horn times Newsletter, November 19 2012byGetahune Bekele ..
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