WASHINGTON - Susan Rice was playing stand-in on the morning of Sept. 16 when she appeared on five Sunday news programs, a few days after the deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would have been the White House's logical choice to discuss the chaotic events in the Middle East, but she was drained after a harrowing week, administration officials said.
So instead, Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, delivered her account of the episode. Reciting talking points supplied by intelligence agencies, she said that the Benghazi siege appeared to have been a spontaneous protest later hijacked by extremists, not a premeditated terrorist attack. Within days, Republicans in Congress were calling for her head.
In her sure-footed ascent of the foreign-policy ladder, Rice has rarely shrunk from a fight. But now that she appears poised to claim the top rung - White House aides say she is President Barack Obama's favored candidate for secretary of state - this sharp-tongued, self-confident diplomat finds herself in the middle of a bitter feud in which she is largely a bystander.
"Susan had a reputation, fairly or not, as someone who could run a little hot and shoot from the hip," said John Norris, a foreign-policy expert at the Center for American Progress. "If someone had told me that the biggest knock on her was going to be that she too slavishly followed the talking points on Benghazi, I would have been shocked."
At the United Nations, and in posts in the Clinton White House, Rice, who turned 48 on Saturday, has earned a reputation as a blunt advocate, relentless on issues like pressing the government in Sudan or intervening in Libya to prevent a slaughter by Moammar Gadhafi.
She was a Rhodes scholar, and has degrees from Stanford and Oxford, a Rolodex of contacts, and a relationship with Obama sealed during his 2008 campaign. Her ascension to lead the State Department would be the capstone to a fast-track career.
Yet the firestorm over Benghazi raises more basic questions: Is Rice the best candidate to succeed Clinton as the nation's chief diplomat? Does she have the diplomatic finesse to handle thorny problems in the Middle East? And even if Obama gets the votes for her confirmation, has the episode so tainted her that it would be hard for her to thrive in the job?
Rice's supporters say she has compiled a solid record at the United Nations, winning the passage of resolutions that impose strict sanctions on Iran and North Korea. Diplomats praise her energetic negotiating style, though her peremptory manner has bruised some egos.
While some in the State Department are wary of her, recalling her blustery style as assistant secretary for African affairs in the Clinton administration, Rice has a core of support among Obama's aides. They insist that Benghazi will not derail her chances.
She has other powerful defenders, like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who said that Rice had done nothing wrong and was a victim of character assassination.
Even David Petraeus, the fallen director of the CIA, came to her aid Friday, testifying behind closed doors that Rice read the talking points on Benghazi supplied to her. Republicans said she and the administration were trying to play down a terrorist plot for political reasons. Rice did not comment for this article.
A point guard and valedictorian in high school, Rice is one of several basketball players in Obama's inner circle. He recently invited Rice and her husband, Canadian-born TV producer Ian Cameron, to the White House for a post-election dinner with Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and other friends.
Even before such invitations, Rice had an entree to elite Washington. As the daughter of Emmett Rice, a Federal Reserve System governor, and Lois Dickson Rice, an education policy expert, Rice spent her childhood mixing with family friends like Madeleine Albright, another secretary of state.
By her own account, Rice's fervor is fueled by the Clinton administration's inaction in Rwanda. Years later, she told Samantha Power, then a journalist writing about the episode, that "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."