- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 27, 2012

WASHINGTON (AP) — Emerging from a closed-door meeting, three Republican senators said Tuesday they are more troubled than ever with comments made by SusanRice, the U.N. ambassador and President Obama’s possible choice for secretary of state, days after the deadly Sept. 11 raid in Libya.

Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire met privately with Ms. Rice and acting CIA Director Michael Morell for more than an hour on her much-maligned explanations of the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

Ms. Ayotte said Ms. Rice told the lawmakers that her comments in a series of national television interviews five days after the attack were wrong. However, that failed to mollify the three lawmakers, who have talked about blocking her nomination if the president taps her to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“We are significantly troubled by many of the answers that we got and some that we didn’t get concerning evidence that was leading up to the attack on the consulate and the tragic death of four brave Americans and whether Ambassador Rice was prepared, or informed sufficiently, to give the American people the correct depiction of the events that took place,” Mr. McCain told reporters.

Said Mr. Graham: “Bottom line, I’m more disturbed now than I was before that 16 September explanation.”

The three insisted that they need more information about the Libyan raid before they even consider Ms. Rice as a possible replacement for Mrs. Clinton.

“I’m more troubled today,” said Ms. Ayotte, who argued that it was clear in the days after the attack that it was terrorism and not a spontaneous demonstration prompted by an anti-Muslim video.

Despite lingering questions over her public comments after the Benghazi attack, Ms. Rice has emerged as the front-runner on a short list of candidates to succeed Mrs. Clinton, with Sen. John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democart, seen as her closest alternative.

The strong statements from the three senators clouded Ms. Rice’s prospects only two days after Republican opposition seem to be softening. Ms. Rice planned meetings on Wednesday with Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who is in line to become the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican.

Mr. Corker said Tuesday that he had concerns with a possible nomination.

“When I hear Susan talk, she seems to me like she’d be a great chairman of the Democratic National Committee,” Mr. Corker said. “There is nobody who is more staff supportive of what the administration does. That concerns me in a secretary of state.”

Ms. Rice’s series of meetings on Capitol Hill will be a critical test both for Republicans, who will decide whether they can support her, and the administration, which must gauge whether Ms. Rice has enough support to merit a nomination.

A senior Senate aide said the administration was sounding out moderate members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, such as Mr. Corker and Sen. Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican. Assessing the prospects for Ms. Rice before Mr. Obama makes any announcement would avoid the embarrassment of a protracted fight with the Senate early in the president’s second term and the possible failure of the nominee.

On talk shows the weekend following the attack, which took place on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, Ms. Rice was given talking points that described the attack as a spontaneous protest of the film, even though the Obama administration had known for days that it was a militant assault.

Republicans called her nomination doomed, leading to a vigorous defense of her by Mr. Obama in his first post-election news conference. Since then, GOP lawmakers had appeared to soften their views. Mr. McCain, who said earlier this month that would he do everything in his power to scuttle a Rice nomination, said Sunday that he was willing to hear Ms. Rice out before making a decision.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had issued a statement highly critical of Ms. Rice on the day of Mr. Obama’s news conference. He indicated Monday that perhaps she didn’t know what had transpired in Benghazi on the day of the attack.

“I assumed she had full knowledge of everything that went on. I’m not at all convinced of that now. She very well could have been thrown under the bus,” Mr. Inhofe said in an interview. He said she hadn’t requested a meeting but he would be glad to meet with her.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday that the administration appreciated Mr. McCain’s latest comments about Ms. Rice, but he wouldn’t say whether the president saw them as an opening to make the nomination.

“Ambassador Rice has done an excellent job at the United Nations and is highly qualified for any number of positions,” Mr. Carney said.

Several diplomats currently serving with Ms. Rice said that what she lacked in Mrs. Clinton’s star power, she could make up with a blunter approach that demands attention and has marked her tenure thus far at the United Nations.

Ms. Rice, who at 48 is relatively young, has been known to covet the job for years but was passed over for Mrs. Clinton in 2009. Since arriving in New York, she can point to a series of diplomatic achievements — most notably the NATO-led air campaign that toppled Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and tougher sanctions against Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs.

But Ms. Rice has also been criticized — along with other Security Council leaders — for the failure of the U.N.’s most powerful body to take action to end the 19-month civil war in Syria.

Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Edith M. Lederer in New York contributed to this report.