LAS VEGAS — Although the topics for the first presidential debate are supposed to be domestic issues, the recent attack on a U.S. outpost in Benghazi could become a flashpoint tomorrow night in Colorado.
A day before the critical showdown between the two candidates, Republican Chairman Darrell Issa raised the stakes on politicizing the Libya tragedy, sending a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claiming the administration failed to respond to a "pattern of security threats" at the U.S. outpost in Benghazi.
Issa's latest high profile volley has the potential to inject Libya — and foreign policy — into the debates earlier than expected. The final debate on Oct. 22 was slated for international affairs, while the earlier debates were meant to focus on issues like healthcare, immigration, and the economy.
According to the Commission on Presidential Debates, tomorrow's moderator, PBS anchor Jim Lehrer, has the leeway to ask any questions he wants — including topics dominating the headlines, as Libya is now.
"We don't have any say in what the moderator asks whatsoever," the spokesperson for the Presidential Debate Commission Bob Roy told BuzzFeed. "The only rule for the debates is that the moderator decides what is asked."
A spokeswoman for Lehrer, Anne Bell, told BuzzFeed in an email that "the overall debate topic is domestic policy" but that "when Jim Lehrer announced the general topics for the debate he did indicate that is was subject to change in the event news warranted."
At a morning press conference in Las Vegas on Tuesday, White House spokesperson Jay Carney addressed Issa's letter after questions from ABC's Jake Tapper.
Carney referred questions to the State Department, while pointing to both the FBI investigation into the attack as well as Clinton's promise to review security procedures at all U.S. diplomatic facilities.
Carney also said President Obama's focus since the attack has been on examining State Department security procedures and bringing the killers to justice — previewing perhaps what is the most likely response Obama would give to question about Benghazi.
Obama officials have declined to say whether or not the president is preparing for the Libya question. For the moment, what's happening in the debate prep appears to be the most closely guarded secret in Obamaland.
However, sources close to the campaign said the president is preparing for all topics — including Libya, though another source told BuzzFeed they still weren't expecting Lehrer to move the debate into the foreign policy realm.
"The moderator has a very powerful role in any of these debates to steer the conversation,” campaign spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters this morning, responding to a broader question about what issues were likely to come up. "This is a huge audience,” the president will reach on Wednesday, she said.
Meanwhile, Obama officials suggested another issue that they'd prefer to dominate tomorrow's debate: Mitt Romney's taxes.
Psaki pointed to a news story today suggesting that Romney — contrary to his earlier claims — profited from his tax shelters in the Caymans and Bermuda.
"This raises a lot of questions the Romney campaign has to answer tomorrow evening," she said.
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Ruby Cramer is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
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