WEST CHESTER, Ohio — When Mitt Romney strode across the the platform Friday evening and took his place behind a podium in front of the largest crowd he's drawn this year, he sounded familiar stump speech themes of bipartisanship and economic recovery.
But the parade of high-profile surrogates who opened for the candidate fixated on another, more explosive issue — one with a particular power to both animate conservatives, and frighten Romney's senior staff. For about 60 minutes before Romney took the stage, Topic A was Libya.
Ever since terrorists stormed the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi in September — killing four Americans, including the ambassador — conservatives have demanded the Obama administration be held accountable for what they consider a massive failure of national security, and what they allege was a politically-motivated coverup after the fact.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani came out with the hardest line, that if Romney was president on September 11, 2012, "maybe something like what happened in Libya could have been avoided."
"Maybe if we had a president who was paying attention, we wouldn't be going through all of this investigation of what's being covered up about Libya," he added.
But he wasn't alone. From John McCain, to Kelly Ayotte, one prominent Republican after another blasted the president's handling of the crisis.
"I'm hearing from veterans all over this country because they are disgusted and they are angered and they are sick and tired of a commander in chief who doesn't lead," McCain said. "And has allowed a debacle such as happened in Benghazi to happen where four brave Americans lost their lives and they didn't have to."
"When I think about these last few days, I think about two words: Budget and Benghazi," Ayotte said.
The attacks evoked, at times, loud applause from the partisan crowd, who, like much of the conservative movement across the country, has become consumed by an intense desire to prosecute the White House for its role in the deaths.
It has taken the place of "Fast and Furious" gunrunning debacle as the scandal Republicans believe could sink the president — if only the mainstream media would adequately cover it. "Why aren't you covering Libya?" has become a common complaint flung at reporters on Twitter and in comment sections.
Earlier on Friday, at a factory rally in Etna, Ohio, Romney's traveling press corps was heckled by supporters as they filed out of the room, with shouts of "Tell the truth!" and "Cover Benghazi!"
The steady drip-drip of new details surrounding the attacks have raised plenty of legitimate questions about what the White House knew in the aftermath of the attacks, and how it fit with the talking points they were dispensing at the time.
But while the Republican rank-and-file — and more than a few of their leaders — demand a prosecution in the court of public opinion, the irony is that their standard-bearer, Romney, has been largely ineffective in making that case, when he's even tried to.
His first response to the attacks — a harshly-worded midnight statement that accused the administration of "sympathizing" with the terrorists — was panned by pundits and foreign policy experts across the ideological spectrum. The next morning, at a makeshift press conference while the situation was still simmering overseas, Romney doubled down on his attacks, and drew further criticism for attempting to politicize an international crisis.
And his last attempt at taking the fight to Obama on the Libya fallout — an aggressive line of attack during the second presidential debate — resulted in a devastating real-time fact-check from moderator Candy Crowley, who confirmed that the president had, in fact, called the attacks an "act of terror," contrary to Romney's assertion.
That was the last straw for the Romney campaign. Advisers told BuzzFeed at the time that a decision was made in the hours after that debate to leave the Libya issue alone, and return their focus to jobs and the economy — issues where polls showed they had a distinct advantage.
But even as Romney has kept the issue at arm's length, Fox News and conservative talk radio has continued to dig, and the story — which supports two popular conservative caricatures of Obama; that he is ineffectual, and corrupt — has captured the imaginations of the Republican base.
One senior campaign official said they had not directed their surrogates to bring up Libya, and attributed its focus at the rally to Republicans who have already become leading voices on the issue.
But under the bright lights here Friday night, there was no question that the Libya talk could motivate the Republican faithful in the crucial final days of the presidential race.
"You think if we had elected John McCain president of the United States, those people wouldn't have the full resources of the United States fo America there in Benghazi trying to save them," an indignant Giuliani shouted.
As soon as the line escaped his lips, the audience roared with approval.
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Zeke Miller at email@example.com.
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