WASHINGTON — Susan Rice was playing stand-in on the morning of Sept. 16 when she appeared on five Sunday news programs, a few days after the deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would have been the White House’s logical choice to discuss the chaotic events in the Middle East. But administration officials said she was drained after a harrowing week consoling the families of those who died, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
So instead, Rice, the ambassador to the U.N., delivered her now-infamous account of the episode. Reciting talking points supplied by intelligence agencies, she said the Benghazi siege appeared to have been a spontaneous protest later hijacked by extremists, not 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 Barack Obama’s favored candidate for secretary of state — this sharp-tongued, self-confident diplomat finds herself in the middle of a bitter feud.
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 she is confirmed, 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 U.N., winning the passage of resolutions that impose strict sanctions on Iran and North Korea.
While some in the State Department are wary of her, Rice has a core of support among Obama’s aides. 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.
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.