NEW YORK – For all the choppy waters of unemployment, foreclosure and soaring debt that have buffeted US President Barack Obama’s re-election efforts, foreign policy was one realm where he enjoyed smooth sailing for almost all of the 2012 campaign.

All of it up until September 11, when militants in Benghazi, Libya killed four American diplomats, including the first US ambassador to be assassinated since 1979.

After months of polls consistently showing Obama winning on national security, his competitor Mitt Romney suddenly had a line of attack.

Republican members of Congress seized upon the opening with hearings exploring whether the administration had been negligent before and after the attack. And the GOP nominee himself has gone after the president on Libya from the campaign trail.



Just over one month later, on October 16, the tide turned. At Tuesday night’s debate, Obama mitigated what is currently his biggest foreign policy liability in response to a question on the very subject.

The question to the president was anything but friendly. A member of the audience, Kerry Ladka, rose at the town hall-style debate to ask about the State Department’s refusal to provide extra security that had been requested for American staff in Libya.

“Who was it that denied enhanced security, and why?” he asked the president, echoing critics of the administration.

But by the end of the ensuing exchange, Obama had outmaneuvered Romney.

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Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, accused Obama of not labeling the Benghazi incident an act of terror until two weeks after it happened, but Obama replied that he had immediately called it that.

“The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened, that this was an act of terror,” Obama said.

The two presidential candidates then engaged in a back-and-forth over whether that was true, with Romney expressing incredulity and Obama telling him to check the transcript.

The Rose Garden transcript records that Obama said, “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.” Obama was speaking in the context of the Benghazi killings, but also the 9/11 attacks.

His words left enough room for Republicans to claim Romney was correct, but the debate moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, called it for Obama as the candidates continued to drag out the argument.

“He did call it an act of terror,” she said.

She added, “It did, as well, take two weeks or so for the whole idea of there being a riot out there about this tape to come out.”

But the perception was that the essential point had been scored by Obama, and the exchange was frequently cited in post-debate analysis as a strong moment for Obama and even a turning point in the debate.

There were other reasons Obama was seen as having won the debate (46 percent to 39% in a CNN poll and 37% to 30% in a CBS survey).

For one, he came back to life and took the offensive after a lackluster first outing. He also pounded Romney on vulnerable points, like his statements about the 47% of Americans who don’t pay income taxes.

And Romney did some of his own damage – offering the twitterati the image of “binders full of women,” for example.

On Libya, Obama also offered a clear acceptance of fault – even though US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had taken responsibility ahead of the debate – that could help defuse the controversy.

“Secretary Clinton has done an extraordinary job, but she works for me. I’m the president, and I’m always responsible,” Obama said.

And to accusations from Romney that Obama blamed the deaths in Libya on an anti-Muslim video in place of acknowledging resurgent terror activity, the president offered one of his most impassioned lines of the evening.

“The suggestion that anybody on my team… would play politics or mislead when we’ve lost four of our own, governor, is offensive. That’s not what we do,” he stressed.

“That’s not what I do as president. That’s not what I do as commander-in-chief.”

Next Monday’s debate, the final one before the November 6 vote, is slated to focus entirely on foreign policy, so Romney will have a chance to hit Obama on the topic of the violence in Libya again – perhaps even to retry the issue of whether Obama called it a terror attack in the Rose Garden.

Romney also tried out other prongs of attack he will likely return to next week when he argued Tuesday night that the incident had broader implications for Obama’s Middle East policy.

“This calls into question the president’s whole policy in the Middle East,” Romney said, describing that strategy as “unraveling before our very eyes.”

“Look what’s happening in Syria, in Egypt, now in Libya. Consider the distance between ourselves and Israel,” he continued.

“We have Iran four years closer to a nuclear bomb.”

But it is clear that the foreign policy issue that has most captured the American public in recent weeks, as the campaign draws to a close, is the Libya incident – it was the sole foreign policy question asked by a member of the audience Tuesday.

With the answer, a foreign policy advantage Romney briefly enjoyed was likely wiped out.

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