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Clinton gets political boost on eve of testimony

Thomas Fitzgerald, Inquirer Politics Writer

Updated: Thursday, October 22, 2015, 1:08 AM

Two former foes did big favors Wednesday for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

First, Vice President Biden got out of her way in the Democratic presidential contest, announcing from the White House that he would not run for the nomination.

Then, writer David Brock, once a member of the "vast right-wing conspiracy" that hounded the Clintons and now head of a pro-Clinton super PAC, argued in a Philadelphia speech that the House Select Committee on Benghazi should be disbanded.

"There's no reason to keep this farce going," Brock said to the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia. The committee's Republican chairman, Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, has abused his power and spent $4.6 million in taxpayer money in an effort to damage Clinton's presidential campaign, Brock said.

The remarks came on the eve of Clinton's scheduled marathon testimony Thursday before the panel looking into the 2012 terrorist attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.

It is the next stern test of Clinton's campaign. She will face sharp questions about her decisions as secretary of state and the private system of emails she maintained to conduct government business.

Yet she goes into the clash in a strengthened position, after a strong debate performance last week, Biden's decision to skip the race, and questions about the motives of the GOP-controlled committee itself.

Clinton backers planned to spend more than $1 million Wednesday and Thursday in key early-voting states and Washington to blanket cable news networks with ads attacking the committee. The ammunition: public admissions from Republicans, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, that the purpose of the Benghazi committee was to knock down Clinton's poll numbers.

'War room'

And Brock's super PAC, Correct the Record, is opening a "war room" of 30 researchers and spokespeople to handle rapid-response defenses of Clinton and counterattacks on the committee.

The Democratic presidential candidate slipped off the campaign trail this week for a three-day cram session to rehearse answers for every conceivable line of questioning. Stakes are high, with an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday showing 44 percent of Americans are not satisfied with Clinton's response to the attacks in Benghazi and even more saying the controversy over her private email system will influence their votes.

On the other hand, the committee did not fare too well in the same survey. Just 29 percent of voters called the committee "fair and impartial," while 36 percent agreed that it was "unfair" and partisan.

Seeking answers

Gowdy and other Republicans were at pains to say that the select committee's investigation was not about Clinton, but rather seeking answers to the attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

"This isn't about Hillary," Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R., Ga.) said on CNN. "She just happened to be there as secretary of state when this tragedy occurred."

Despite a perception that the committee is partisan, there is risk for Clinton in the appearance, said Christopher Borick, a pollster and political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

"She's placed a lot of emphasis on her tenure as secretary of state, and if there were missteps, that could undercut her credibility, her claims of being a good manager," Borick said. That would be especially damaging among independents, crucial in a general election, he said.

Recent opinion polls have shown independent voters give Clinton low marks for trustworthiness, a result likely driven by the drumbeat of news coverage over the emails amid questions of whether she mishandled classified information.

In the NBC/WSJ poll, for instance, 26 percent of all voters agreed with the statement that she is honest and straightforward, compared with 50 percent who disagree.

"This is a circus; it's never been about getting to the bottom of Benghazi," said Melvin Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, who was a CIA analyst for 24 years. The politics surrounding Clinton have obscured some real questions about Benghazi, particularly the CIA's role there, Goodman said.

The station was only nominally a consulate, he said, and was an important U.S. intelligence hub in the unstable post-Gaddafi period in Libya.

One potential political complication for Clinton did disappear Wednesday with Biden's Rose Garden announcement that he would not run for president, after three months of considering it. Polls have shown that most Biden backers would line up behind Clinton if the vice president did not run.

As he made his announcement, Biden criticized the take-no-prisoners style of attack politics embraced by Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

"I believe that we have to end the divisive partisan politics that is ripping this country apart," Biden said. "I don't believe, like some do, that it's naive to talk to Republicans. I don't think we should look at Republicans as our enemies. They are our opposition. They're not our enemies. And for the sake of the country, we have to work together."

Hillary Clinton characterized Republicans as her "enemies" during the debate. Brock said in an interview that it was a "tongue-in-cheek" remark.

"But the seriousness of it is, yes, she's been under concerted attack, really, since the Clintons first came into the national spotlight back in 1992," Brock said. "So she does have real enemies, and she knows it. That's, I think, a smart thing to recognize. At the same time, she has a strong record in the Senate of working with Republicans, even some Republicans who tried to impeach her husband. So I don't think the fact she said that would get in the way of being effective once in office."

tfitzgerald@phillynews.com

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@tomfitzgerald

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Thomas Fitzgerald, Inquirer Politics Writer

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