Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton |

Clinton unscathed by Benghazi questioning in first debate

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton capped a strong debate performance Tuesday night with a pass on one important question: her handling of the deadly attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi.

Clinton has long been trailed by criticism that, as secretary of state, she mishandled the 2012 attack, which left four dead, including U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

Critics say Clinton failed to provide adequate protection for U.S. assets in Libya as that country collapsed into Salafist violence following the U.S.-led overthrow of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. Clinton has also been slammed over her office’s response to media and congressional inquiries in the aftermath of the attack.

Clinton and her supporters dismiss the Benghazi claims as a “phony scandal” created by Republicans to attack Clinton, President Barack Obama, and the Democratic Party. The candidate repeated that narrative midway through Tuesday's debate, ridiculing a House committee investigating the tragedy. 

“This committee is basically an arm of the Republican National Committee,” Clinton said. “It is a vehicle, as admitted by the House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, to drive down my poll numbers - big surprise - and that is what they have attempted to do.”

The House committee discovered earlier this year that Clinton was using a nondescript email address on a pseudonymously registered server to handle official correspondence throughout her tenure as secretary of state.  That revelation led to an FBI investigation into security risks and attempts by both lawmakers and private citizens to discover the contents of Clinton's secret emails. Obama has called the issue concerning. 

Debate moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN suggested Clinton was being too casual in her dismissal of the email issue.

“I never said it wasn’t legitimate,” Clinton said. “I have answered all and I will certainly be doing so again in front of this committee, but I certainly think it would be really unfair not to look at the entire picture.” 

Clinton said she would much rather speak about what the next president needs to do to deal with the country’s problems rather than continue to answer questions about her emails. She is scheduled to testify later this month in front of the congressional Select Committee on Benghazi, which has been working for 17 months and has cost about $4.5 million.

“I think it is pretty clear what their goal is,” Clinton said during the debate, “but I’ll be there, I’ll answer their questions. But tonight, I wasn’t here to talk about my emails, but what the people want from the next president of the United States.” 

Opponent Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who has chopped away at Clinton's once-dominant lead in polls since he entered the race in April, chose to defend Clinton on the issue.  “Let me say something that may not be great politics, but I think the secretary is right, and that is the American people are sick and tired about hearing about your damn emails.”  

Clinton took the offensive on Benghazi last month after McCarthy said in an interview that the GOP was using the issue as a political talking point to hurt Clinton’s popularity, and that her drop in recent polls was proof it worked.

Shortly after McCarthy’s remarks, Clinton put together a television ad campaign attacking the committee. McCarthy stepped back from his comments and last week dropped his bid to become the next Speaker of the House.

Earlier this week, a Republican staffer claimed he had been terminated for refusing to point the investigation toward the presidential hopeful.

In Tuesday's debate, Cooper took the discussion beyond the Benghazi attack itself to the wisdom of overthrowing Gadhafi - who had complied with U.S. demands and had been removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism just five years earlier. 

Clinton called the 2011 U.S. air campaign that led to Gadhafi's killing by a mob "smart power at its best" and described Gadhafi as a "murderous dictator."