WASHINGTON — The White House’s shifting explanations about the deadly assault on the US consulate in Libya have provided a robust line of attack by Republicans, one presidential nominee Mitt Romney is expected to take up in his next debate Tuesday against President Obama.
As Romney, running mate Paul Ryan, and Vice President Joe Biden fanned out across several toss-up states Friday, the sparring continued over the lapses in security last month at the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, as well as over broader foreign policy disagreements on the Middle East.
Obama remained in Washington. He is expected to spend the weekend at a “debate camp” in Williamsburg, Va., to prepare for the debate, a town hall type event at Hofstra University in New York. The stakes are particularly high for Obama, whose performance last week in the first presidential debate was widely panned as listless.
Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts will join Obama to serve as a stand-in for Romney.
Foreign policy was expected to be a clear strength for Obama, given the killing of Osama bin Laden, but his campaign has been severely hobbled by questions over the attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The Libyan attack became a point of contention during Thursday’s lively debate between Biden and Ryan.
“Whatever mistakes were made will not be made again,” Biden said near the top of the encounter.
“We weren’t told they wanted more security there. We did not know they wanted more security,” Biden said, referring to the diplomatic compound in Benghazi.
Not true, Ryan responded: “There were requests for extra security. Those requests were not honored.”
Testimony on Wednesday during a congressional hearing convened by House Republicans seemed to undercut Biden’s assertion.
Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Wood, who oversaw security for the US diplomatic corps in Libya from February to August, said there had been requests to boost staffing.
Earlier this week the State Department, which is continuing an investigation into the attack, acknowledged there were no protesters during the siege and it appeared to have no connection to a California-made anti-Islamic video that had been available on the Internet. Instead, the attack now appears to have been the work of militants hoping to seize on the Sept. 11 anniversary.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the White House had said intelligence suggested it was sparked by anger over the video.
On Friday, the White House said that the vice president in the debate was referring only to his and the president’s direct knowledge of such a request for staffing.
“He was speaking directly for himself and the president,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
Romney has portrayed the attack as a sign of Obama’s weakness abroad and the unraveling of the country’s foreign policy. On the stump in Richmond, Va., Romney alluded to the mounting questions, saying Biden was “doubling down on denial.”
“When the vice president of the United States directly contradicts the testimony — sworn testimony — of State Department officials, American citizens have a right to know just what’s going on,’’ Romney said. “And we’re going to find out. And this is a time for us to make sure we do find out.”
Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith quickly responded: “As Secretary [Hillary] Clinton said today, the president and his administration have been focused on getting the facts about what happened in Libya, finding the terrorists responsible, and bringing them to justice. But Mitt Romney has repeatedly rushed to launch political attacks without knowing all the facts.”
Romney’s stronger performance has boosted the Republican in polls, striking concern among Obama supporters who hope for a stronger showing on Tuesday debate, or risk further erosion, particularly in toss-up states.
During Thursday’s debate, Biden scoffed at Ryan’s “lecture on embassy security,” suggesting that the federal budget Ryan authored as the chair of the House Budget Committee threatens to weaken protection of diplomatic facilities worldwide.
“The congressman here cut embassy security in his budget by $300 million below what we asked for,” Biden said.
The vice president’s assertion assumes that wholesale cuts in the Ryan budget would be spread uniformly across a series of programs.