By DONNA CASSATA, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans lashed out at President Barack Obama and senior administration officials over their evolving description of the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya, a late campaign-season broadside challenging the veracity and leadership of an incumbent on the upswing.
Desperate to reverse the apparent trajectory of the White House race, Republicans sense a political opportunity in Obama's reluctance to utter the words "terrorist attack" as well as the varying explanations emerging from the administration about the assault in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Talk of Watergate-style scandal, stonewalling and cover-up echoed in the GOP ranks on Thursday, from the head of the party to members of Congress to Mitt Romney's campaign staff. This full-throated criticism comes five days before the first debate between Obama and Romney, with Republicans determined to cast the president as dishonest and ineffectual on both foreign and domestic policy.
"Amid Middle East turmoil and six weeks before the election, President Obama refuses to have an honest conversation with the American people," Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican Party, wrote in an article for the website Real Clear Politics. "The country deserves honesty, not obfuscation, from our president."
Republicans say the administration has been slow to call the assault a terrorist attack and has criticized its initial insistence that the attack was a spontaneous response to the crude anti-Islam video that touched off demonstrations across the Middle East.
Since then, it has become clear that the Benghazi assault was distinct from the mobs that burned American flags and protested what they considered the blasphemy in the movie, but didn't attack U.S. personnel. Republicans have also suggested that the administration had intelligence suggesting the deadly attack might happen and ignored it.
"I think it's pretty clear that they haven't wanted to level with the American people. We expect candor from the president and transparency," Romney told Fox News this week.
The White House and Democrats accused the GOP of politicizing national security, with officials specifically mentioning Romney's quick swipe at Obama as an extremist sympathizer as the crisis was still unfolding in North Africa around Sept. 11.
"The Republican approach is to shoot first and ask questions later," Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said in an interview. "The administration wants to do an investigation and be as accurate as possible. That's the difference between partisan politics and trying to govern."
Democrats also used the criticism to recall the former Massachusetts governor's missteps during his summertime overseas trip and his omission in his prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention of any mention of U.S. military forces fighting in Afghanistan.
"Every time Mitt Romney has attempted to dip his toe into foreign policy quarters, it's been an unmitigated disaster," Obama campaign press secretary Jen Psaki said aboard Air Force One.
National security has provided few political openings for Romney and the GOP as Obama has shed the Democrats' past reputation for weakness by ordering the successful raid that killed terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and undercut al-Qaida. An Associated Press-GfK poll earlier this month found Obama with an edge over Romney on who Americans think can do a better job of protecting the country, 51 percent to 40 percent.
The economy and jobs are the dominant issues in the election, with few voters likely to cast their ballots based on events in Libya or conflicts overseas. Underscoring the general weariness after more than 10 years of war, some of the fiercest GOP defense hawks in Congress have suggested the United States withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, an even bolder step than Obama.
But the administration has struggled to present a coherent description of the assault in Libya, prompting questions from Republicans and Democrats about whether the United States had prior intelligence, whether the attack was planned and whether security was sufficient.