WASHINGTON (AP) — It's a day more than a year and millions of dollars in the making for House Republicans, who finally got their chance Thursday to interrogate Hillary Rodham Clinton about the deadly 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, and her use of a private email account and server.
Thanks to Clinton's political skill, and a few lucky breaks, they'll find themselves facing a witness enjoying what could be the best few days of her campaign for president.
Following a well-received performance last week in the first Democratic primary debate, Clinton's poll numbers are rebounding. She ended the third quarter with more money in the bank than any other candidate for the White House. And her biggest potential rival for her party's nomination, Vice President Joe Biden, just announced he's not running.
At the same time, the House committee charged with investigating the 2012 attacks in which four Americans died has been so marred by political missteps that its chairman begged his colleagues in a weekend interview to "shut up talking about things you don't know anything about."
After a summer in which questions abounded about Clinton's place in the race, a strong showing before the House Select Committee on Benghazi could solidify her recovery and launch her toward the Iowa caucuses, now just over 100 days away.
The latest boost for Clinton came as daily "will-he-or-won't-he" speculation about Biden had begun to overshadow the 2016 Democratic race. In sending along warm words for the vice president after his announcement, Clinton helped position herself as the natural heir to President Barack Obama's coalition of young, minority and female voters.
"Joe has been by President Obama's side for every pivotal decision," she said. "It's a record to be proud of, defend, and build on."
Biden's decision not to challenge Clinton followed a spate of post-debate polls that showed the party seemingly ready to unite around her. And it's not just Democrats who view Clinton as a possible winner. Three-quarters of Americans think she could win in the general election, including two-thirds of Republicans, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll out this week.
For Republicans, as they prepared for Thursday's Benghazi hearing, there was little to cheer in a poll that found many Americans are indifferent to Clinton's handling of the issue.
Four out of 10 Americans said they do not have a strong opinion of the way Clinton has answered questions about her role in the attacks, according to the AP-GfK poll. And after 17 months of congressional investigation in the attacks, 20 percent approve of Clinton's response, while 37 percent disapprove.
While Republicans care deeply, with 71 percent disapproving, nearly half of Democrats and a majority of independents said they don't have any particular view on Clinton's conduct toward the committee.
In her opening remarks, Clinton presented herself as a seasoned diplomat trying to rise above the partisan fray, laying out a foreign policy philosophy of so-called "smart power" or using diplomacy to achieve gains in dangerous regions.
"We need leadership at home to match our leadership abroad," she told the committee. "Leadership that puts national security ahead of politics and ideology."
Clinton left the State Department in February 2013 as the most popular politician in the country and to accolades from some of the Republicans now running against her — an image that her team wants to resurrect.
Her supporters see the appearance as a chance to lob some general election attacks at the GOP, casting Republicans as wasting millions of taxpayer dollars on an effort by a panel they've dubbed the "committee to destroy Hillary Clinton."
"It's Exhibit A of the overreach of the Republicans and their desperation to knock her off at any costs," said former Michigan Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm. "It has been made clear now that this committee is a taxpayer-funded political witch hunt."
The super PAC supporting Clinton's bid aired its first television ad in the days before the hearing, charging Republicans with "playing politics with Benghazi." And at Correct the Record, an outside group that coordinates with her campaign, a 30-person war room stands ready to defend Clinton during the hearing.
Clinton has been helped along the way by a bit of good luck. Aides at her campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, were gleeful after California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, then in line to become the next House speaker, implied that the work of the taxpayer-funded Benghazi committee was responsible for the summertime drop in Clinton's poll numbers.
Now, McCarthy is no longer in the running for the job, and the party is more focused on its own leadership struggles than Clinton's homebrew server.
Yet no matter how well Clinton does on Thursday, the issue won't disappear.
With a court ordering monthly releases of her correspondence, Republicans will have plenty of opportunities to remind voters of lingering questions about her email setup. They're sure to also point at ongoing unrest in the Middle East and try to link it to Clinton's tenure as secretary of state.
For Clinton, much of the risk from such attacks will come in a general election. After months of uncertainty, she's appears to have finally caught the political headwind she'll need to get there.
Associated Press News Survey Specialist Emily Swanson contributed to this report.
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