WASHINGTON -- The attack on an American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, last month, became the subject of intense political wrangling on Sunday, as several Republicans accused President Barack Obama of mishandling the attacks in a way that one suggested was worse than Watergate.
"Somebody said the other day to me that this is as bad as Watergate," McCain said during an appearance on CBS' "Face the Nation," about the attack that left four Americans dead, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya. "Nobody died in Watergate."
The "worse than Watergate" claim is one that has been circulating on right-wing and military blogs for a few days, particularly after a new Fox News report alleged that CIA officers on the ground in Benghazi had requested backup three times, and each time been denied. "This is bigger than Watergate," Rush Limbaugh said on his radio show two weeks ago.
McCain was joined, on the second-to-last Sunday before the election, by several other top Republicans who lashed out over Benghazi in what had the appearance of a coordinated assault on the Obama administration.
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, raised the attacks on ABC's "This Week," arguing that President Barack Obama was canceling campaign events ahead of Hurricane Sandy, but hadn't cancelled a fundraiser on the day after Benghazi.
"You have to wonder, between Benghazi, the price of gasoline and unemployment just how much the burden the president is going to carry into this last week," Gingrich said.
And Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican Party, told CNN that the election would ultimately boil down to the economy and the Benghazi controversy.
"There are two things out there people are talking about: They're talking about the economy, and they're talking about what happened in Benghazi," Priebus said.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a Mitt Romney campaign surrogate, said much the same thing in his appearance on Fox.
The political gamesmanship over the attack had seemed to lose its appeal after the second presidential debate, when Romney's attempt to bash Obama over whether he had used the term "act of terror" in his first statements about the incident fell flat.
In the third and final debate, Romney appeared to go out of his way to avoid discussing the controversy, and aides later told HuffPost that the campaign had calculated that it wasn't a winning line of attack.
But the same advisers did not back down from their criticism of Obama's handling of the episode, and promised the campaign would continue to press for answers on the incident.
Earlier in the weekend, at least one Republican congressman used the attacks to whip up enthusiasm at a campaign rally for Romney, the Republican nominee.
“America deserves a president that will not leave a U.S. ambassador and three others," said Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), in his introductory remarks.
The Obama administration has yet to fully and directly address many lingering questions about the episode, including who approved the security for the ambassador at the Benghazi compound, what decisions were made about sending military reinforcements during the attack, and what the White House knew before publicly attributing the attacks to an unrelated anti-Islam film.
But so far, few of the most inflammatory accusations against the administration have fully borne out under close inspection.
For instance, suggestions that the White House knew for sure that the attacks were not related to the anti-Islam video have been complicated by reports that some militants continued to cite the video for weeks after that incident.
Meanwhile, a series of emails acquired by Reuters last week, which appeared to show the White House being informed within hours of the assault that the militant group Ansar al-Sharia had claimed responsibility for the attacks on a Facebook page, were equally muddled.
Even the most recent Fox News report, alleging that requests for help from CIA officers on the ground were denied by superiors three times, is less conclusive than it appears. Not clear from the reporting is whether the denials came from White House officials, as some Republicans have charged, or if they were made separately by the Pentagon, or perhaps never left the CIA itself.
Fox's report says that the initial request for help "was denied by the CIA chain of command" and that later ones were communicated to "their higher-ups at the annex [in Benghazi]."
The CIA denied the report late on Friday, saying "No one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate."
Earlier in the week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told reporters that amid the assault he and two top commanders agreed that there was too little information to risk deploying additional troops into the frenzied scene.
"The basic principle is that you don’t deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what’s going on, without having some real-time information about what’s taking place," Panetta said. "There’s a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking going on here."