By Paul Steinhauser, CNN Political Editor
WASHINGTON (CNN) — It was a sideshow, but a compelling sideshow nonetheless.
The main act was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton‘s at times angry, at times emotional testimony on Wednesday at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s hearing on the September terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
But presidential politics was another storyline, thanks to three of the participants who might be harboring 2016 ambitions.
Clinton, the outgoing secretary of state, faces constant pressure from fellow Democrats to make another bid for her party’s presidential nomination, even though she’s said over and over that another run for the White House is not in the cards for her.
The other two were Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky. Both were elected in 2010 with strong support from the tea party. Paul has publicly stated that he’s considering a bid for the 2016 GOP nomination. Rubio has not been as expressive, but is considered someone who also has White House ambitions.
The two senators were polar opposites in their questioning of Clinton during the hearing, which may say something about both men’s possible strategies towards 2016.
Rubio went first, stating, “We all wish that this had never happened so this hearing would never have to happen. But we’re glad to see you here and wish you all the best,” before asking, “One of the things that I’m interested in exploring with you is how information flows within the State Department and in particular in hindsight looking forward how we can prevent some of this happening.”
Clinton was gracious in her answer, saying up front that, “I appreciate your kind words. And I reiterate my taking responsibility.”
While understated, Rubio’s three questions probed whether Clinton had inquired into security for U.S. diplomats in Libya in the year leading up to the attacks.
Paul didn’t so much question Clinton as confront her.
“I’m glad that you’re accepting responsibility. I think ultimately with your leaving you accept the culpability for the worst tragedy since 9/11. And I really mean that,” declared Paul, adding that, “Had I been president at the time and I found that you did not read the cables from Benghazi, you did not read the cables from Ambassador Stevens, I would have relieved you from your post. I think it’s inexcusable.”
While Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin asked tough questions, Paul’s comments stood out.
But when he finally asked a question, it was whether the U.S. was involved in the transfer of weapons from Libya to Turkey.
Clinton appeared almost bemused by the question, saying: “To Turkey? I’ll have to take the question to the record. No one ever raised that with me.”
So which strategy was more effective?
“Rand Paul will never have to worry about winning a general election for president of the United States,” said Republican strategist and CNN contributor Alex Castellanos. “Even though it might make the entire party look unreasonable, he can attack Democrats until the libertarians in the GOP base foam at the mouth and it is all to his advantage.”
“Marco Rubio has a different and more serious hand of cards to play. He may not only compete in a general election, he may lead the nation someday. He has to demonstrate that he is a potential president and not a partisan politician. If you want to be president, you have to act like someone who could represent the entire nation,” added Castellanos, who served as a media strategist for seven presidential campaigns and who co-founded Purple Strategies, a bipartisan public affairs firm.
Another GOP strategist, who asked to remain anonymous so he could speak more freely, said that each senator had a different mission: “This is a classic case of the tortoise and the hare, with Marco Rubio more concerned about gaining traction than garnering headlines, as Paul’s questioning is sure to do.”
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean says that Clinton’s poll numbers may be behind Rubio’s strategy.
“Senator Rubio understands that Hillary Clinton has very high ratings and the Benghazi crisis has not damaged her image or credibility among American voters. For a 2016 general election, Rubio must get back the lost share of female voters from the last election, so why not let other Senators such as Rand Paul and John McCain go after her?” asks Bonjean, who served as a top adviser to Republican leaders in the House and Senate before co-founding a public affairs firm.
Clinton did come to the hearing equipped with some very high public opinion numbers.
According to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll released Wednesday morning, just a few hours before the outgoing secretary of state testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the morning and before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the afternoon, two-thirds of Americans said they have a favorable impression of Clinton, while just over one in four saying they have a unfavorable impression.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released last week indicated that nearly seven in ten approved of the job Clinton was doing as America’s top diplomat, with just a quarter of the public saying they disapproved.
But both surveys pointed to a partisan divide, with nearly all Democrats and two thirds of independents, but only a minority of Republicans, giving Clinton a thumbs up. But that partisan divide is not nearly as wide as it is in polling of President Barack Obama.
In the end, all three possible 2016 candidates got something out of this hearing.
Could this 2013 hearing about a terrorist attack in 2012 be one of the opening acts in the 2016 election? And will we see clips from the hearing in 2016 campaign commercials?
CNN’s Ashley Killough contributed to this report.