Obama, Romney prepare for 1st debate

Mark Landler / New York Times News Service /

LAS VEGAS — President Barack Obama arrived here Sunday to prepare for his first debate with Mitt Romney, leading in the polls nationally and in most of the critical states, but still fending off Republican criticism over the White House’s shifting accounts of the deadly September attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.

Obama plans to go into virtual seclusion at a lakeside resort hotel outside Las Vegas today and Tuesday, when his staff and outside consultants will drill him for the encounter with Romney in Denver on Wednesday evening.

Romney was also preparing for the debate but planning to do some campaigning in Denver today.

The Libya issue

As Obama hunkered down, his aides continued to battle criticism from Republicans about the White House’s handling of the Benghazi attack, which the administration initially characterized as a spontaneous demonstration gone awry, and later described as an organized terrorist act by extremists with possible links to al-Qaida.

Sen. Robert Corker, R-Tenn., labeled the administration’s changing accounts “bizarre.” In a letter to the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, Corker questioned whether the compound was adequately secured before the attack, in which the ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans were killed.

The administration welcomed scrutiny of the security of U.S. embassies, insisting that the safety of diplomats was a top priority for Obama, and was reviewing the security at diplomatic facilities around the world, Joshua Earnest, the White House deputy press secretary, said to reporters Sunday.

“I recognize, particularly in this political season — and here we are nearing October in an election year — that there are going to be people who are going to be asking politically motivated questions,” Earnest said. “I can tell you that the president is not focused on the politics of the situation, he’s focused on the safety and security of our diplomats.”

But, pivoting immediately to politics, the Obama campaign’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, asserted that Romney’s proposed budget would cut money for security at American embassies. “This raises into question what their priorities are too,” she said.

Romney turns up heat

The Romney campaign kept up the pressure as well, accusing the administration of mixed messages. Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, said on “Fox News Sunday” that the administration’s response to the attack was “slow, it was confused, it was inconsistent.”

Later in the interview, Ryan complained that the Romney campaign was fighting an uphill battle because the news media was tilted toward Obama. “I think it goes without saying that there’s definitely a media bias,” he said to the host, Chris Wallace.

“I think most people in the mainstream media are left of center, and therefore they want a very left-of-center president than they want a conservative president like Mitt Romney,” Ryan said.

He did, however, acknowledge that the Republican campaign has had its flaws, including what he described as Romney’s “inarticulate” comments about people who pay no taxes and receive government help.