Focus in Benghazi hearings shifts from Pres. Obama to Clinton

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Barack Obama's been in the bull's eye of Republicans and conservatives since 2008, but after Wednesday's hearing on last September's terror attack in Benghazi, Libya, many on the right are shifting their aim at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Soon after the hearing by the GOP-led House Oversight Committee looking into the events surrounding the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, a recently formed pro-Republican opposition research group blasted out an e-mail with the headline "Benghazi Hearing Raises Serious Questions About Clinton."

America Rising PAC then followed up Thursday with a Web video which it says outlines "the serious questions raised about Hillary Clinton's leadership yesterday in a House Oversight Committee hearing."

The Republican National Committee and American Crossroads, the Karl Rove-backed pro-GOP super PAC, also issued e-mails critical of Clinton, America's top diplomat at the time of the attack last September 11. And Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a possible 2016 GOP White House contender, criticized Clinton in an interview on Thursday on Fox News Channel.

Many Republicans see the deadly attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi and the initial reaction by the State Department and the White House as a huge scandal, one that they feel Democrats tried to cover up with the president's re-election, at the time, less than two months away.

The GOP accuses the administration of not bolstering security prior to the attack, of botching the response to it, and of misleading the public in its slow-to-evolve explanation of events.

They point to five TV appearances the Sunday following the attack by Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who called the armed assault a "spontaneous protest" rather than an act of terrorism.

Many Democrats disagree and call the GOP drumbeat a "witch hunt."

While the president is definitely still in conservative's line of fire over Benghazi, 2016 politics are also at play in this story.

Obama can't run for a third term and Clinton, who's weighing a White House run, would be the instant front-runner for the Democratic nomination if she launches a bid for president.

Clinton stepped down as secretary of state with sky-high poll numbers, but the incident in Benghazi is a stain on her record at the State Department.

The question is whether it could come back to haunt her if she does seek the presidency.

An independent review of the Benghazi incident, led by Adm. Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and former ambassador Thomas R. Pickering, discovered no wrongdoing by Clinton.

But critics noted at the time that neither Mullen nor Pickering interviewed Clinton.

Before she stepped down as planned in late January, Clinton testified for hours on Capitol Hill on the Benghazi attack. She was forceful in her defense and the conventional wisdom at the time was that she was not politically wounded.

But the story was given new legs thanks to the House hearing, which showcased the testimony of State Department whistleblowers who had not previously testified, including the riveting details from an official who was on the ground in Tripoli at the time of the attack in Benghazi.

Even before Wednesday's hearing, there was plenty of hype.

"I think the dam is about to break on Benghazi," Sen. Lindsey Graham wrote on his Facebook page.

"We're going to find a system failure before, during, and after the attacks. We're going to find political manipulation seven weeks before an election. We're going to find people asleep at the switch when it comes to the State Department, including Hillary Clinton," added the South Carolina Republican, who's been a longtime critic of the administration's role in Benghazi.

But Clinton's specific role did not dominate the hearing, with only one GOP congressman on the panel trying to drill down for specifics.

The question now is whether any smoking gun emerged from Wednesday's hearing regarding what Clinton knew and when she knew it. Republicans and Democrats obviously disagree on this question

"I rather doubt the current right-wing demagoguery is going to hurt Hillary if she chooses to run," said Democratic strategist and CNN contributor Paul Begala, who was a top political adviser in Bill Clinton's White House.

Republican strategist and CNN contributor Alex Castellanos disagreed.

"It is increasingly looking like the only president named Clinton may be Bill," said Castellanos, who is spearheading a new super PAC called to refocus the party's messaging and policy goals..

One thing's for sure: Wednesday's hearing won't be the end of this story. Thursday morning House Speaker John Boehner called on the president to release emails that he says show how the White House wanted to change the Benghazi attack "talking points."

Stay tuned.