By Bradley Klapper and Donna Cassata
WASHINGTON — Emerging from a closed-door meeting, three Republican senators said Tuesday they are more troubled than ever with comments made days after the deadly Sept. 11 raid in Libya by Susan Rice, the U.N. ambassador and President Barack Obama's possible choice for secretary of state.
Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte met privately with Rice and acting CIA Director Michael Morell for more than an hour on her much-maligned explanations of the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Ayotte said Rice told the lawmakers that her comments in a series of national television interviews five days after the attack were wrong. However, that failed to mollify the three lawmakers, who have talked about blocking her nomination if the president taps her to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"We are significantly troubled by many of the answers that we got and some that we didn't get concerning evidence that was leading up to the attack on the consulate and the tragic death of four brave Americans and whether Ambassador Rice was prepared, or informed sufficiently, to give the American people the correct depiction of the events that took place," McCain told reporters.
Said Graham: "Bottom line I'm more disturbed now than I was before that 16 September explanation."
The three insisted that they need more information about the Libyan raid before they even consider Rice as a possible replacement for Clinton.
"I'm more troubled today," said Ayotte, who argued that it was clear in the days after the attack that it was terrorism and not a spontaneous demonstration prompted by an anti-Muslim video.
Despite lingering questions over her public comments after the Benghazi attack, Rice has emerged as the front-runner on a short list of candidates to succeed Clinton, with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., seen as her closest alternative.
The strong statements from the three senators clouded Rice's prospects only two days after Republican opposition seem to be softening. Rice planned meetings on Wednesday with Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who is in line to become the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Corker said Tuesday that he had concerns with a possible nomination.
"When I hear Susan talk she seems to me like she'd be a great chairman of the Democratic National Committee," Corker said. "There is nobody who is more staff supportive of what the administration does. That concerns me in a secretary of state."
Rice's series of meetings on Capitol Hill will be a critical test both for Republicans, who will decide whether they can support her, and the administration, which must gauge whether Rice has enough support to merit a nomination.