Analysis: Clinton tries to rise above fray in Hill hearing

AP News
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Posted: Oct 22, 2015 9:34 PM
Analysis: Clinton tries to rise above fray in Hill hearing

WASHINGTON (AP) — With a calm demeanor and detailed answers, Hillary Rodham Clinton turned an 11-hour congressional grilling on the deadly Benghazi attacks into an opportunity to look more presidential than political.

Clinton, the front-runner for the 2016 Democratic nomination, was largely unflappable in testimony that began Thursday morning and stretched well into the night. Even as the hearing became more contentious in its closing moments, Clinton largely avoided stumbles that could hurt her later in her campaign.

For Republicans, however, Clinton's lengthy appearance on Capitol Hill will likely be touted as a sign of the party's commitment to an issue that still resonates with many of its voters.

As Clinton began her testimony, she urged lawmakers to "reach for statesmanship" and rise above partisanship on national security issues. When asked by a friendly lawmaker how it felt to be accused of contributing to the deaths of four Americans, she spoke in a soft tone about the emotional toll of the 2012 attacks.

"I imagine I've thought more about what happened than all of you put together," Clinton said. "I've lost more sleep than all of you put together."

And when the committee's Republican chairman and top Democratic member heatedly argued about making public the panel's earlier private hearings, Clinton sat back with an amused smile on her face for several minutes. She appeared more than happy to stay out of a partisan spat that seemed to bolster her campaign's contention that the hearing was more about politics than uncovering new information about the violence in Libya.

For Clinton, the hearing in the cavernous House committee room was a setting that played to her strengths. She's long been more comfortable delving into detailed policy discussions than giving lofty speeches or engaging in other trappings of political campaigns. And she's often been at her best when she has an opponent with whom to draw a contrast — in this case, a Republican-led committee.

To be sure, Clinton was sharply challenged by GOP lawmakers on a range of issues, from requests for additional security at the Benghazi compound that went unfulfilled to her frequent email exchanges about Libya with Sidney Blumenthal, a longtime Clinton friend who had no role at the State Department.

Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan also repeatedly revived questions about the Obama administration's shifting accounts of what happened at the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi and nearby CIA compound, positing that the White House was eager to avoid political damage from a terror attack less than two months before President Barack Obama faced re-election.

"I'm sorry it doesn't fit your narrative, congressman," Clinton said in response. "I can only tell you what the facts are."

Clinton's daylong testimony was unlikely to end Republicans' quest to use the heavily scrutinized Benghazi attack to question her judgment and leadership. Revelations that Clinton relied on personal email and a private Internet server during her tenure at the State Department have only heightened the GOP's interest in determining whether more information exists about the attack that killed Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans.

Clinton's competent performance was also unlikely to drastically affect her standing in the Democratic race, where she faces a challenge from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Nearly half of Democrats and a majority of independents said they don't have strong feelings about the Benghazi investigation, according to a new AP-GfK poll.

Still, emerging from the hearing largely unscathed contributed to a sense of momentum around Clinton's presidential bid. After an uneven start to her campaign that sparked anxiety among some Democrats, Clinton rebounded with a strong debate performance earlier this month. On Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden announced he wouldn't make a late entry into the race and challenge Clinton for nomination.

Clinton's advisers have long viewed the Benghazi hearing as a key hurdle as they seek to steady her campaign ahead of early voting contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. The campaign's expectations for the hearing only increased after Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the No. 2 Republican in the House, said the committee had hurt Clinton's poll numbers, helping bolster Democrats' contention that the Benghazi investigations were motivated by politics.

Clinton's team also saw the hearing as an opportunity to present herself as a seasoned diplomat and harken back to her days in the State Department, when her popularity soared and she won accolades from some of the Republicans now running against her in the White House contest.

During her hours of testimony, Clinton ticked through details of the administration's policy toward Libya, where the U.S. invested significant resources to help rebels remove longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi from power. She described numerous urgent conversations with the White House and CIA the night of the Benghazi attack.

Throughout her testimony, Clinton was slipped notes from longtime aide Cheryl Mills, prompting Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., to say he could pause his questioning so she could read the messages.

Appearing to find Roskam's offer condescending, Clinton replied coolly, "I can do more than one thing at a time."

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Julie Pace has covered the White House and politics for The Associated Press since 2009. Follow her at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC