DANVILLE, KY. -- In the closing days of the 2004 presidential campaign, the New York Times and "60 Minutes" reported that U.S. forces had lost track of hundreds of tons of dangerous munitions in Iraq. The story quickly dominated media coverage, and Democratic candidate John Kerry decided to devote the final stretch of his campaign to slamming President George W. Bush over the issue.
"Our country and our troops are less safe because this president failed to do the basics," Kerry said on the stump, citing "incredible incompetence" in the Bush White House. "My fellow Americans, we can't afford to risk four more years of George Bush's miscalculations."
If Kerry hoped the Iraq weapons issue would put him over the top, he was mistaken. He went on to lose by more than a million votes.
The Democrats had lots of other problems that year, but perhaps one lesson of the missing-weapons episode is that seizing on a last-minute event probably doesn't change the long-established dynamics of a race.
That's something Mitt Romney's supporters are keeping in mind as they consider new and damaging information about the Obama administration's handling of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead.
Evidence is mounting daily that the Obama administration not only mishandled the security issue in Libya but that top administration figures -- from the secretary of state to the UN ambassador to the president himself -- pushed a version of events that the administration knew was untrue.
Given all that, there are those in Romney's extended circle of aides and advisers who want to see the candidate come out swinging against Obama on the Libya issue. And then there are those who counsel holding back. Right now, the holding back forces are winning.
The case for coming out swinging: The scandal is both significant and revealing. Obama's top aides have wanted the public to believe that the fight against al Qaeda pretty much ended with the death of Osama bin Laden. And in their desire to present the chaotic, dangerous situation in Libya as "normal," they dangerously under-emphasized security for Ambassador Stevens and his staff. Then they misled the public about it.
The case for holding back: The Libya story is moving forward on its own, pressed by Republican Rep. Darrell Issa and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (an active Romney surrogate), who are running the House investigation. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing Wednesday put some of the basic facts of the story into wide circulation. It's bad news for the Obama administration, and it doesn't need a push from the Romney campaign. And besides, the race is still fundamentally about the economy.
That's all true, but it's also true that there are still many details that might well seize the public imagination, if only the public knew them. For example, Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Mike Kelly, a member of the House committee, writes that just days after the State Department denied funding for the Libya embassy to continue using an airplane for security, it approved a request from U.S. diplomats in Vienna to spend $108,000 to buy a charging station for their new fleet of Chevy Volts -- part of what the Obama administration calls the "greening of the embassy."
If a skilled politician can't make something out of those misplaced priorities, he probably shouldn't be running for high office.
Then there is the fact that the Benghazi attack was just part of ongoing violence in the region. For example, on Thursday, a Yemeni expert providing security for Americans was assassinated just before the anniversary of the attack on the USS Cole in that country. "The threat is still out there, and the Obama administration has not responded to it," says a Republican foreign policy expert who supports Romney. "That is a lack of leadership. Why not go to town on it?"
The advocates of a more aggressive stance make a compelling case. But right now that compelling case is knocking up against the innate caution of the Romney campaign. And maybe the voices of caution are right. When congressional investigators (and reporters) go after a story, as they're doing in Libya, it's always possible to get caught up in the chase and lose sight of the bigger picture. It's up to Mitt Romney to step back, to remember cases like those missing Iraqi munitions in 2004, and decide what course is best for the presidential campaign. At the moment, the cautious position is winning the day.