The question came towards the end of last night's debate, and Republicans were no doubt thrilled. After an event featuring questions Democrats enjoyed -- equal pay for women, outsourcing, Bush comparisons -- an undecided voter finally brought up an issue the right has been desperate to talk about: the attack in Benghazi that left four Americans dead.
But after weeks of teeing this up as a devastating issue for President Obama, Mitt Romney blew it. It was, as Rachel noted last night, a "political disaster" for the Republican.
As the moment unfolded live, it was obvious Romney thought he'd finally found a brutal new criticism. The Republican began by accusing the president on Sept. 12 of flying "to Las Vegas for a political fundraiser" -- that wasn't true; there was no such fundraiser -- instead of addressing the attack. Obama responded, "The day after the attack, Governor, I stood in the Rose Garden, and I told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened, that this was an act of terror."
Romney hadn't done his homework, and didn't realize that the president was telling the truth. He thought he'd tripped Obama up, but even moderator Candy Crowley felt compelled to fact-check Romney in real time: "He did call it an 'act of terror.'"
The president added, "Can you say that a little louder, Candy?" The moment that Romney expected to be triumphant had backfired -- and the crowd of undecided voters ended up applauding Obama.
"[T]he Romney camp laid the trap," Josh Marshall noted. "And tonight Mitt walked right into it."
The New York Times' Andrew Rosenthal compared it to another major foreign-policy debate failure.
When Gerald Ford denied in 1976 that there was any "Soviet domination" of Eastern Europe, he cemented the impression that he was out of touch with pretty much everything. Tonight, Mitt Romney may have had a similar moment, during a back-and-forth about the attack on the Benghazi Consulate. Mr. Romney clearly thought he had a big opening and he moved in for the kill when Mr. Obama said he had called the attack a terrorist act the very next day, in a Rose Garden speech. [...]
Whoever coached Mr. Romney on that question did the candidate no favors.... The exchange left voters in the uncomfortable position of assuming that Mr. Romney either believes his own propaganda or doesn't care whether what he says is true, which fits into the narrative that he's willing to twist the truth for political gain.
One other thought: last night featured plenty of emotional highs and lows, but Romney's criticism of Benghazi on political grounds seemed to offend the president on a personal level. Take a look at Obama's face during his response:
Romney tried to exploit the deaths of Americans for partisan gain the night of Sept. 11, and then he tried to do it again in last night's debate. The president, displaying more passion than we're accustomed to seeing, was determined to make the Republican pay a price for this, and he did. Romney ended up looking small, with even less credibility on foreign policy than he did before.