11/27/2012 03:33 EST | Updated 01/27/2013 05:12 EST

Susan Rice fails in attempt to win over Republican senators on Benghazi response

WASHINGTON - Susan Rice's closed-door meeting on Tuesday with three Republican lawmakers did nothing to ease their criticisms of the UN ambassador's public proclamations over the September attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya that killed four Americans, including envoy Chris Stevens.

"I'm more disturbed now than I was before," South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters after Rice explained why she initially characterized the Benghazi attack as a spontaneous eruption of violence over an anti-Islam video.

"I think it does not do justice to the reality at the time and in hindsight clearly was completely wrong.... In real time, it was a statement disconnected from reality."

Rice's 90-minute meeting with Graham and fellow senators John McCain and Kelly Ayotte came amid the roar of speculation in the U.S. capital that she's about to be tapped by the Obama administration, possibly as early as this week, to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.

Clinton wants out of the job so Rice, who's been serving as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations since 2009, is making the rounds on Capitol Hill this week on an apparent "charm offensive" aimed at getting lawmakers behind her potential nomination.

Her first foray onto the Hill on Tuesday with acting CIA director Michael Morell, however, backfired badly, thanks to the trio of senators who have been bitterly maligning her Benghazi response for weeks.

All three of them emerged from the meeting to say they're more bothered now about her public remarks on Sunday morning talk shows a few days after the Sept. 11 attack than they were before she attempted to explain herself.

"I'm significantly troubled by the answers we got and didn't get," McCain said.

"It was clear that the information she gave the American people was incorrect when she said that it was a spontaneous demonstration triggered by a hateful group."

Ayotte, meantime, said she had "many more questions that need to be answered" and suggested she'd vote against Rice's nomination as secretary of state.

Rice, 48, has said her public remarks about the Benghazi attack were based on talking points provided by U.S. intelligence agencies.

Those in intelligence circles suggest the talking points were deliberately vague in order to protect covert operations in Libya in the aftermath of the attack, adding that an investigation was still underway when Rice made the rounds of talk shows on Sept. 16.

Republicans, meantime, suspect Rice was covering up for U.S. President Barack Obama, charging the administration didn't want an al-Qaida terrorist attack to taint his re-election chances.

Obama has defended Rice, most fiercely in a White House news conference held soon after his re-election.

White House spokesman Jay Carney came to Rice's defence again on Tuesday, shortly after her ill-fated visit to Capitol Hill.

"Ambassador Rice has no responsibility for collecting, analyzing and providing intelligence, nor does she have responsibility ... for diplomatic security around the globe," he said.

"The focus on — some might say obsession (with) — comments made on Sunday shows seems to me, and to many, to be misplaced. What is the point of the focus on this?"

Rice, a Rhodes scholar who's married to Canadian television producer Ian Cameron, has risen through Democratic ranks over the years to counsel presidential candidates that include Michael Dukakis and John Kerry, himself a potential Hillary Clinton replacement.

She has an impressive pedigree — her father was the first black governor of the Federal Reserve Board, her mother a renowned education scholar — but Rice's legendary abrasiveness has prompted misgivings about her suitability for the job from both the left and right.

"She is ill-equipped to be the nation's top diplomat for reasons that have little to do with Libya," Dana Milbank, a left-leaning Washington Post columnist, wrote recently in a piece that recounted how she once gave respected diplomat Richard Holbrooke the middle finger when she worked in the Bill Clinton White House.

He called her an "undiplomatic diplomat."

The New York Times' Maureen Dowd, also a liberal columnist, took aim as well, arguing Rice's foreign policy stances are primarily motivated by professional ambitions.

Rice also has a reportedly uneasy relationship with Hillary Clinton. She was among the first of Bill Clinton's former officials to back Obama over his wife in 2008, and frequently criticized her throughout primary season.

In 2008, she also repeatedly slagged McCain, whose memory is long. Among other insults, she mocked his trip to Iraq during the presidential election campaign and called him reckless and belligerent.

Some in the international community are reportedly nervous about the prospect of Rice as secretary of state. An anonymous Russian foreign ministry official was recently quoted describing her as "too ambitious and aggressive," adding her appointment would strain relations between Russia and the United States.

Under Bill Clinton, Rice had a critical say in several foreign policy decisions — some of them controversial. Among other moves, she advised against accepting Sudan's help in capturing Osama bin Laden in the 1990s.

She later expressed regret over the Clinton administration's failure to prevent massive genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Canada's Romeo Dallaire, head of the overwhelmed UN peacekeeping forces at the time, had urged the international community to take action.

"I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required," Rice later recounted.

There's even a Canadian angle to some of her public remarks. As Obama ran for president, Rice insisted his campaign had never assured Canadian officials that his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement was "just politics."

"The Canadian ambassador issued a statement that that story was absolutely false," Rice said in a television interview, making reference to Michael Wilson's denial of a report that an Obama official had personally made NAFTA assurances to him in a phone call.

"There had been no contact. There had been no discussions on NAFTA."

Obama later acknowledged Austan Goolsbee, his economic adviser, had in fact talked to a senior Canadian official in Chicago about his stance on the trade pact.

Rice certainly has no shortage of defenders — including her ninth grade teacher, who wrote the Post to dispute Milbank's column.

"She was one of the most outstanding students I encountered in my 40-year teaching career," wrote John Wood of D.C.'s National Cathedral School.

A sole Republican is also defending her. Jon Huntsman, the former Republican presidential hopeful, said that criticism of Rice's failure to immediately describe the Benghazi attack as an act of terrorism was unfair.

"The issue of Benghazi, I think you can attribute to the fog of war, more than anything else," Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, said this week.

"It takes a while to sort through the details. And it doesn't do a whole lot of good for the political class to point fingers before you even know what was behind it."