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Rice meets with Republicans, fails to win them over

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice failed on Wednesday to win over Republicans opposing her possible candidacy for U.S. secretary of state, and more senators - including a one-time supporter - questioned statements she made after the deadly attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi in September.

U.S. Senator Susan Collins met with Rice for over an hour and said afterward she could not back Rice for secretary of state, if she were nominated by President Barack Obama, without more information.

The moderate Maine Republican even brought up a new concern about Rice's record in the State Department 14 years ago in connection with the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa.

Other Republicans have threatened to block Rice's nomination if Obama picks her to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which would require Senate confirmation.

They accuse her of misleading the American people for political reasons in the run-up to the November 6 presidential election by playing down any al Qaeda links to the Benghazi, Libya, attack at a time when Obama was touting his record of successes against the militant movement.

The U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed in the September 11 Benghazi attack.

Obama, who has strongly supported his embattled ambassador, gave a show of moral support on Wednesday, prompting applause from his Cabinet - including Clinton - during their first meeting at the White House since Obama's re-election.

"Susan Rice is extraordinary," Obama said, adding he "couldn't be prouder of the job she's done."

Clinton told reporters later on Wednesday that Rice had done a great job at the United Nations, and she hoped a board reviewing the Benghazi attack would complete their review shortly.

"They have been hard at work, we are hoping they will be finished with their work very soon," Clinton said.

Votes from moderates like Collins, who introduced Rice to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Obama nominated her to the U.N. post three years ago, would be needed to overcome procedural obstacles and win confirmation.

"I still have many questions that remain unanswered," Collins told reporters after a 75-minute meeting with Rice.

The top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, Collins said she still wanted more information about the attack on the U.S. mission and a nearby CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya.

The controversy raises the unpleasant specter of Obama starting his second term with a nasty confirmation fight. He also risks looking weak if he seems to give in to criticism from the party he just defeated to win re-election.

Obama should nominate Rice if he feels she is the best choice, said Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense, now at the liberal Center for American Progress.

He predicted she would win confirmation, given that the main objection to her was over a political point that Republican Mitt Romney tried to feature in his failed presidential campaign this year.

"The Republicans are desperate for an issue," Korb said. "She's not the issue. The issue is that they want to undermine his (foreign policy) narrative."

PLAYING POLITICS?

Sticking with Rice could also be a potent demonstration of strength for Obama, Korb said, reminiscent of Republican President Ronald Reagan. Reagan, who is revered by his party, won points for winning the confirmation of Al Haig as secretary of state in 1981, despite objections to Haig's ties to the Watergate scandal, he noted.

Some observers have speculated that the Republicans would prefer that Obama nominate Senator John Kerry, leaving the door open for a Republican to win his vacated Massachusetts seat and narrowing the Democratic majority in the Senate.

"I think John Kerry would be an excellent appointment and will be easily confirmed by his colleagues," Collins told reporters.

Collins said the United States seemed not to have learned lessons from the bombings of the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, when Rice was the State Department's Africa region head.

This year's attack in Benghazi "echoed" those attacks, she said. "In both cases, the ambassador begged for additional security," and State turned down both requests, she said.

"I asked Ambassador Rice what her role was. She said that she would have to refresh her memory but that she was not involved directly in turning down the request. But surely, given her position as assistant secretary for African affairs, she had to have been aware," Collins said.

Republicans have openly criticized Rice for initial comments after the Benghazi attack that suggested it was a spontaneous event arising from protests of an anti-Islam film rather than a planned terrorist strike.

Intelligence officials said later the attack was possibly tied to al Qaeda affiliates.

Rice, accompanied by acting CIA Director Michael Morell, also met with Senator Bob Corker, who is in line to be the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

After his meeting, Corker had tough words for the Benghazi attack and the aftermath, which he termed a "tawdry affair" that would add to Americans' distrust of the government.

He declined to discuss whether he would support Rice, but urged Obama to "step back" from the controversy and "take a deep breath" as he decided whom to nominate.

Rice also met for about an hour behind closed doors on Tuesday with Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte, who have been among her most vocal critics.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Andrew Quinn; Editing by David Storey and Peter Cooney)

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