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By Evan Halper and Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The House Select Committee on Benghazi has been furiously preparing for months to interrogate Hillary Rodham Clinton about private email accounts, the server in her house and Americans killed in Libya, but on the eve of the hearing Thursday, it is not Clinton who is on the defensive.

It is the committee.

Congressional Republicans have made so many missteps in the run-up to their marquee event of the presidential primary that the chairman of the committee finally implored his colleagues over the weekend to “shut up talking about things you don’t know anything about.” The Clinton campaign now views the daylong grilling that once threatened to derail her White House bid as a veritable campaign stop.

Clinton slipped out of public view this week to prepare answers for every line of questioning her team can imagine. The three-day cram session reflects the high stakes of the event, with a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showing 44 percent of Americans are not satisfied with Clinton’s response to the attacks in Benghazi and even more saying her email controversy will factor in their vote.

But Clinton is also strategizing how to use the hearing as a springboard to introduce her foreign policy vision. Clinton’s team is betting that the committee, chastened by questions about its motivation, will focus more on Libya than on email — which is exactly what Clinton wants.

“This investigation has not unveiled a lot of new facts,” said one senior Clinton adviser, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the preparations. “And no matter how many hours it lasts, she is not somebody who is going to break. Good luck trying to break Hillary Clinton.”

The hearing that once promised to be a flash point in the email controversy, where Clinton would either put it behind her or sow more doubt in the minds of voters, is no longer quite that.
“A month ago, the stakes would have been much higher,” said David Brock, who leads Correct the Record, a pro-Clinton super PAC. “The Republicans have been knocked back.”
One big reason is Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, Calif., who was poised to be House speaker until he bragged on cable news about the committee’s effectiveness in damaging Clinton. It contradicted assurances by the committee chair, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., that the panel was not targeting anyone.

Another GOP congressman, Richard Hanna of New York, would also describe the committee’s work as partisan, and Gowdy himself, days before the hearing, is returning campaign donations from a political — called Stop Hillary PAC — that recently ran ads attacking Clinton’s handling of Benghazi.

Then there is the threatened wrongful termination lawsuit from a Republican investigator on the committee who says he was fired after refusing to bend to pressure to narrowly target his digging toward Clinton.

It has all left committee Republicans straining to define the hearing as about anything other than attacking her. “This isn’t about Hillary,” Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., said on CNN on Tuesday. “She just happened to be there as secretary of state when this tragedy occurred.” Gowdy sent an exasperated letter to committee Democrats Sunday that began: “(O)ur committee is not investigating Hillary Clinton.”

Yet more Americans think the investigation is overly partisan and unfair than believe it is fair and impartial, the poll found, with 36 percent calling it unfair, compared with 29 percent who see it as fair.

But roughly a third of the public, 35 percent, said they don’t know enough yet to judge the probe’s fairness — an audience both sides presumably will be trying to influence.
The Clinton campaign, the super PACs supporting Clinton, and the Democrats on the Benghazi committee haven’t stopped pummeling.

“The strongest indictment against the committee thus far is that after 17 months and $4.5 million, (it) still can’t tell you what it’s looking for — because it doesn’t know,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., a leading Democratic member of the panel, said in an interview. “That’s the classic definition of a fishing expedition.”

Clinton supporters are spending more than $1 million to blanket the cable news networks with ads attacking the committee Wednesday and Thursday in key early voting states and in Washington. The committee Democrats rolled out a 124-page, footnoted report concluding the investigation is a sham.

“Republicans on the committee are going to be under intense pressure to justify their very existence, to justify the existence of this committee and to prove to the American people that this committee is not just another arm of the Republican National Committee,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday.

Clinton won’t be talking about any of that. She will play the part of stateswoman seeking to work with the legislative branch to strengthen American foreign policy. The hearing that was supposed to put Clinton on her heels, bait her into an unflattering confrontation and damage her credibility is now looking to her campaign like a great venue to shift the focus of the campaign to her foreign policy strengths.

“This is an opportunity to lean in and defend her approach to foreign policy,” said the Clinton adviser. That includes defending a diplomatic presence in Libya and other dangerous places to protect American interests, as well as outlining her view of “smart power” — using diplomacy to build consensus with allies, backed by the appropriate level of military strength.

Clinton will also talk about J. Christopher Stevens, the ambassador to Libya killed in the 2012 attacks, as someone she knew personally. And she will strike a “solemn and substantive” tone in trying to work with the committee on solutions for keeping diplomats side, while also insisting that the lesson to be learned from the Benghazi attacks is not that American diplomats need to retreat from such hot zones.

(c)2015 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Hall of Fame dinner in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, United States, July 17, 2015. REUTERS/Jim Young

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