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Team Obama to Romney: Speak positively about Libya, or not at all

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Byron York

DANVILLE, Ky. — Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter stirred a lot of controversy Thursday when she blamed Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan for injecting the Libyan consulate attack into the presidential campaign. “The entire reason that this has become the political topic it is, is because of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan,” Cutter told CNN.  “It’s a big part of their stump speech and it’s reckless and irresponsible.”

Cutter’s remark angered Team Romney aides, who noted that — with the exception of Romney’s statement condemning the administration on the night of September 11 — Romney and Ryan have not, in fact emphasized Libya in their campaigning. One campaign aide called Cutter’s words “outrageous” and said the candidates might soon respond.

At the media center here in Danville before the vice presidential debate, I asked Cutter whether the Libyan attack, which left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead, should be part of the campaign.  Yes, she said, but only if it takes the form of a solution-oriented discussion. “I think that if candidates have legitimate points to make and constructive policies to put on the table of what they would do differently, it’s a legitimate topic,” Cutter said.  “But to come out the night of an attack and accuse the administration of something and politicizing it from the beginning is not right, and I think that Mitt Romney was fairly criticized for that.”

“If Mitt Romney has some serious things that he’d like to put on the table about how he would handle Libya, or if Mr. Ryan wants to do that tonight, it’s a legitimate discussion to have, and we look forward to that,” Cutter continued.

There’s a debate going on inside the Romney campaign over how much to emphasize the Libyan attack on the campaign trail. (See my column tomorrow for more details.)  The short version is that some Romney aides believe the Libya story is moving forward on its own and does not need a push from the Romney campaign.  Others believe the story is so important and compelling that Romney should make it part of his campaign presentation. So far, the cautious camp has prevailed.

But now there is real anger, or perhaps real irritation, over Cutter’s remarks.  After learning of those remarks, Romney addressed the issue at a campaign stop in Asheville, North Carolina.  “I think today we got another indication of how President Obama and his campaign fail to grasp the seriousness of the challenges that we face here in America,” Romney said.  “His campaign said this today about the Benghazi terrorist attack. They said this, and I quote, ‘The entire reason this has become the political topic it is, is because of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.’ No, President Obama, it’s an issue because this is the first time in thirty-three years that a United States Ambassador has been assassinated. Mr. President, this is an issue because we were attacked successfully by terrorists on the anniversary of 9/11. President Obama, this is an issue because Americans wonder why it was it took so long for you and your administration to admit that this was a terrorist attack. This is a very serious issue. These are very serious questions and the American people deserve serious answers. And I hope they come soon.”

No matter what Romney says, the Obama campaign is sticking to the tried-and-true strategy of deferring real questions over the issue until its investigation is over — which would not happen, of course, until long after the election. “I think that in situations like this, when there is an attack on Americans, it is an attack on all of us,” Cutter says.  “And the most responsible thing that we can do is to get to the bottom of what happened.  And that’s what the administration has been doing, conducting an investigation with all of our resources to get to the bottom of why it happened and how we prevent it from happening again.  It’s not a worthwhile discussion to accuse the administration of cover-up, when it’s just not true.”

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