GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's assertion that President Barack Obama failed to label last month's attack on a diplomatic post in Libya as a terrorist attack quickly emerged as one of the highlights in a testy debate between the two candidates.
Former Gov. Mitt Romney had an apparent misstep during the second debate of the 2012 presidential election while laying out the timeline for President Obama's use of the word 'terrorism' to describe the recent attack on Americans in Benghazi, Libya.
Romney's claim about Obama's immediate response to the Sept. 11, 2012 assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, was rebuffed by CNN's Candy Crowley in a somewhat unusual moment in which a moderator disputed a candidate's claim.
As Romney argued that Obama had failed to recognize the incident as an act of terror, Crowley interjected: "He did call it an act of terror."
Her dissent drew scattered applause from the audience, in violation of debate rules.
The moment would seem to put Romney on the losing end of an exchange over an issue on which the politics have shifted steadily in the Republican ticket's favor. But the reality is more cloudy, which cuts to the core of the politics of the Obama administration's response to the Benghazi incident.
Romney's attack on the administration has been two-pronged. In addition to Romney's criticism of the administration's shifting explanation for the Benghazi attack, the Republican emerged hours after the government acknowledged the deaths of four Americans -- including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens -- to essentially accuse the administration of sympathizing with the attackers by failing to disavow a statement issued by the U.S. embassy in Egypt decrying a video produced in America that depicted Islam in an unflattering manner.
"They clearly sent mixed messages to the world," Romney said in a press conference the next day. "And the statement that came from the administration -- and the embassy is the administration -- the statement that came from the administration was a statement which is akin to apology, and I think was a severe miscalculation."
Obama also spoke that morning from the Rose Garden, where he mourned the death of Stevens and the other deceased Americans and vowed to bring the attackers to justice.
Among his remarks, the president said: "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for."
Those comments were the apparent basis for Crowley's dissent from Romney, though the CNN anchor acknowledged in the same breath that Romney was also correct to assert that the Obama administration had also publicly held for days that the attacks were spontaneous, and not premeditated.
Indeed during the immediate aftermath of the attack, the administration officials publicly asserted that the uprising in Libya was essentially a spontaneous reaction to the video, similar to the impetus for protests the same day in Egypt that had resulted in a breach of the U.S. embassy in Cairo.
"Putting together the best information that we have available to us today, our current assessment is that what happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted, of course, by the video," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sept. 16.
But by the end of the month, the administration had eventually admitted that the Benghazi incident was the result of a coordinated terrorist attack. The recognition offered Romney a powerful political cudgel to use against the administration, just as the Republican nominee needed to distinguish himself from Obama on the topic of foreign policy, an issue on which the president enjoyed an advantage.
The issue has threatened to emerge as a millstone on the Democratic ticket, as the Obama-Biden ticket has mangled its public explanations of the handling of the incident.
"As they learned more facts about exactly what happened, they changed their assessment," Vice President Joe Biden said of the administration's evolving definition of the attack at last Thursday's vice presidential debate. But Biden said in the same debate that he and Obama hadn't been told the post in Libya had asked for more protection, in contradiction of a security officer's testimony before a congressional hearing the day before.
The admission gave Romney more fodder.
"Now, by the way yesterday I raised some questions about Benghazi and the tragedy that occurred there and there were more questions that came out of last night. Because the vice president directly contradicted the sworn testimony of State Department officials. He’s doubling down on denial," Romney said Friday in Virginia, while demanding more answers.
That helped lead to Libya's emergence as an issue at Tuesday evening's second presidential debate. While Obama was the beneficiary of an impromptu assist from the moderator, he took separate aim at Romney and accused him of politicizing the entire incident.
"While we were still dealing with our diplomats being threatened, Governor Romney put out a press release, trying to make political points, and that's not how a commander in chief operates," he said.
Turning to glare at Romney, the president added: "The suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the secretary of state, our U.N. ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics or mislead when we've lost four of our own, governor, is offensive. That's not what we do. That's not what I do as president, that's not what I do as commander in chief."