WASHINGTON — Susan E. Rice was playing stand-in on Sept. 16 when she appeared on all five Sunday news programs, a few days after the deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would have been the White House’s logical choice to discuss the chaotic events. But administration officials said she was drained after a week consoling the families of those who died, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. And Clinton steers clear of the Sunday shows anyway.
So instead, Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, delivered her now-famous account of the episode. Reciting talking points supplied by intelligence agencies, she said that the Benghazi siege appeared to be a spontaneous protest rather than a premeditated terrorist attack. Within days, Republicans in Congress were calling for her head.
In her sure-footed ascent of the foreign-policy ladder, Rice has rarely shrunk from a fight. But now that she appears poised to claim the top rung — White House aides say she is President Obama’s favored candidate for secretary of state — this sharp-tongued, self-confident diplomat finds herself in the middle of a feud in which she is largely a bystander.
‘‘Susan had a reputation, fairly or not, as someone who could run a little hot and shoot from the hip,’’ said John Norris, a foreign-policy specialist at the Center for American Progress. ‘‘If someone had told me that the biggest knock on her was going to be that she too slavishly followed the talking points on Benghazi, I would have been shocked.’’
At the UN, and in posts in the Clinton White House, Rice, who turned 48 on Saturday, has earned a reputation as a blunt advocate, relentless on issues like pressuring the regime in Sudan or intervening in Libya to prevent a slaughter by Moammar Khadafy.
She was a Rhodes scholar, has degrees from Stanford and Oxford, a Rolodex of contacts, and a relationship with Obama sealed during his 2008 campaign. So her ascension to lead the State Department would be less a blow for diversity — she would, after all, be the second black woman named Rice to hold the job — than the natural capstone to a fast-track career.
Yet the firestorm over Benghazi raises more basic questions: Is Rice the best candidate to succeed Clinton as the nation’s chief diplomat? Does she have the diplomatic finesse to handle thorny problems in the Middle East? And even if Obama gets the votes for her confirmation, has the episode so tainted her that it would be hard for her to thrive in the job?
Rice’s supporters say she has compiled a solid record at the United Nations, winning the passage of resolutions that impose strict sanctions on Iran and North Korea. Diplomats praise her for reengaging with the institution after deep strains during the George W. Bush administration. But even those who back her tend to emphasize factors like her ties to Obama, an advantage that Clinton, for all her celebrity, did not have.
‘‘Given that he’s probably the most withholding president on foreign policy since Nixon, if anyone can get him to delegate, not dominate, it’s Rice,’’ said Aaron David Miller, a longtime Middle East negotiator now at the Woodrow Wilson Center. ‘‘That would be good for her, and for our foreign policy.’’
While some in the State Department are wary of her, recalling her stormy tenure as a thirtysomething assistant secretary for African affairs during the Clinton administration, Rice has a core of support among Obama’s aides, particularly those who worked with her on the 2008 campaign.
They insist that Benghazi will not derail her chances. Some analysts said Obama’s defense of her at a news conference last week was so impassioned that he had left himself little room to put forward an alternative, like Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts.
Still, other longtime Washington observers question if Obama would risk a battle over his secretary of state when he needs to cut a deal with Republicans on the budget and taxes.
“The attacks are patently unfair and mean-spirited,’’ said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council. ‘‘Susan’s record at the UN is exceptional.’’ He added that Rice, who was an early supporter of Obama’s and advised him on foreign policy, is in addition a longtime friend of the president.