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GOP candidates ding Hillary Clinton during Benghazi hearing

Republican presidential candidates took advantage of Hillary Clinton's Benghazi testimony to take swipes at the Democratic front-runner.

Hillary Clinton's testimony before the Benghazi Select Committee produced few political fireworks, but Republican presidential candidates chimed in throughout the day with various potshots, offering a preview of the role the deadly Libya attack might play in a general election if Clinton wins the Democratic nomination. Based on Clinton's steady performance, they'll face a formidable foe. 

In deciding how loud to cheerlead the hearing, the GOP field faced an unusually complicated political environment. The committee's chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy, has spent weeks trying to defuse accusations that his work was tied to presidential politics ever since Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy boasted on Fox News that the Benghazi Select Committee had dragged down Clinton’s poll numbers. Since then, a second Republican Congressman – not on the committee – has made similar comments and a former staff member on the committee claimed that he was forced out after complaining about its focus on Clinton.

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Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee neatly encapsulated the tension between revving up a conservative base that believes Clinton is hiding something nefarious about her handling of the attack and dismissing the idea that the committee's goals were partisan. 

“For many of us it’s been incredibly frustrating to watch this investigation be turned into political football. Whether it’s by the left, claiming it’s just a partisan attack to harm Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers or by the right like Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s unforced error that handed that talking point to the Democrats on a silver platter,” Huckabee said in a podcast Wednesday night, as quoted by Buzzfeed

The next morning, though, he let loose with as fiery a political message as any candidate during the hearing. 

"Chris Stevens died, Hillary Clinton lied, and the Obama administration tried to cover it up. Time to tell the truth! #Benghazi" Huckabee tweeted

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio used the occasion to broadly condemn Clinton's foreign policy record while soliciting email addresses on Twitter for a petition to "stand with Trey Gowdy."

"From failed policies to her unsecure email server and lax handling of our nation’s most sensitive secrets, to U.S. personnel put at risk by her inattention, Clinton’s record is one of incompetence and failure," Rubio wrote in a Breitbart op-ed published Thursday morning.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush faces his own unique issues in prosecuting the Benghazi issue -- he's currently in an extended argument with Donald Trump over whether his brother, former President George W. Bush, deserves any blame for failing to prevent the September 11th attacks in 2001. The former commander-in-chief also presided over a number of attacks on diplomatic compounds overseas. That didn't prevent the younger Bush from going after Clinton for not stopping the 2012 Benghazi attack. 

"Benghazi security failures were a stunning example of an incompetent foreign policy," Bush tweeted on Thurday. "[Clinton's] role as SOS deserves scrutiny today."

Dr. Ben Carson, after suggesting Clinton's use of a private email server might land her in jail on Wednesday, struck a more temperate note at an event in Missouri promoting his latest book the next day. 

"I think there are a lot of people who try to say [the committee has] been delegitimized because they don’t want to get to the bottom of the situation, but we have to get to the bottom of it because it’s very important," Carson said. 

He did fault Republicans for not politicizing Benghazi more -- in 2012. 

“I gotta tell you, I was shocked, really, in the 2012 election that Mr. Romney sort of let that one go,” Carson said in a WABC radio interview. “I mean, to me, that was a gift-wrapped present put in your lap. I certainly would not let it go.

Sen. Lindsey Graham went on conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt's radio show, where the two repeatedly took issue with what they saw as her bored expressions during the hearing. 

"I think what she’s trying to do is marginalize the hearings through body language," Graham said. 

Donald Trump also made an appearance on Hewitt's show, where he said he missed most of Clinton's testimony, but that "her opening remarks really looked bad."

Gowdy devoted a large portion of his opening remarks to defending the committee’s independence from any partisan efforts to damage Clinton ahead of next year's election.

"Madame Secretary, I understand some people -- frankly in both parties -- have suggested this investigation is about you," he said. "Let me assure you it is not." 

Congressman Elijah Cumming, the ranking Democrat on the committee and a regular Clinton defender, used his time to argue the opposite – and explicitly cited Republican presidential candidates to make his point. 

"Carly Fiorina has said that Secretary Clinton ‘has blood on her hands,’ Mike Huckabee accused her of ‘ignoring the warning calls from dying Americans,’ Sen. Rand Paul said ‘Benghazi was a 3 a.m. phone call that she never picked up,’ and Sen. Lindsey Graham tweeted 'Where the hell were you on the night of the Benghazi attack?'” Cumming said. “Everyone on this panel knows these accusations are baseless from our own investigation and all those before it.”