The Obama administration is facing justified scrutiny over its handling of the terrorist attack in Libya that killed four Americans. But GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan—seeking to exploit the incident and paint the administration as weak—has run with a patently ridiculous explanation for why the incident occurred, and has failed to articulate a plausible explanation for how it might have been prevented.

At Thursday night's VP debate, moderator Martha Raddatz opened with a question on Libya, and here was Ryan's response:

When you take a look at what has happened just in the last few weeks, they sent the U.N. ambassador out to say that this was because of a protest and a YouTube video. It took the president two weeks to acknowledge that this was a terrorist attack. He went to the U.N. and in his speech at the UN he said six times—he talked about the YouTube video. Look, if we're hit by terrorists we're going to call it for what it is, a terrorist attack. Our ambassador in Paris has a Marine detachment guarding him. Shouldn't we have a Marine detachment guarding our ambassador in Benghazi, a place where we knew that there was an Al Qaida cell with arms? This is becoming more troubling by the day. They first blamed the YouTube video. Now they're trying to blame the Romney-Ryan ticket for making this an issue.

For starters, Ryan's allegation that it took two weeks for Obama to acknowledge a terrorist attack is plain wrong: The president referred to the attack as an "act of terror" the day after it occurred. Second, while it's true that the administration wrongly insisted at the outset that the attack sprang from protests over an anti-Islam film on YouTube, there were conflicting strains of intelligence—one from the CIA that said there was a protest, and one from the State Department that said there wasn't—that help explain the administration's remarks in the early going.

One of the hallmarks of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign has been the long trail of less-than-enthusiastic endorsements he's received from important (mostly social conservative) leaders. Rick Santorum said Romney was "the better" candidate and, when pressed on whether it was an endorsement, countered, "If that's what you want to call it, you can call it whatever you want." Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist endorsed Romney by noting that conservatives didn't need a hero; just "a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen." Former President George W. Bush offered his blessing just before getting on an elevator. But this open letter, posted by Evangelical powerbroker and homeschool advocate Michael Farris on his Facebook page, has to win some sort of prize for least-enthusiastic endorsement.

Farris, founder of Virginia's Patrick Henry College (billed as the "Evangelical Ivy") threw his support to Santorum during the Republican primary, but met with Romney at the candidate's request on his campaign bus last month. He wasn't bullish on Romney going in. As he told CNN in April, "Some of us just have a hard time supporting a person who said he was going to be more liberal on gay rights than Ted Kennedy."

He's had a change of heart now. Sort of. "This election has caused me to understand that there is a difference between 'endorsing' a candidate and voting for a candidate," Farris writes. "Because of my leadership position, I have come to understand that there should be a very high standard that I should employ before I endorse a candidate." Mitt Romney doesn't reach that standard.

On only one issue (out of five) does Farris conclude that Romney is "one of us"—he's a good family man. Otherwise, it's a litany of not-quites and could-be-worse.

On abortion: "Mitt Romney has a checkered past on the issue. He claims that he has been converted to the pro-life position. I don't feel convinced that he has fully converted. However, it is clear that he is talking pro-life talk and taking pro-life positions. I think he does this, at least in part, because he realizes that being perceived as pro-life is necessary for his political a minimum, I think we can count on him to keep up this pragmatic approach until November of 2016."

On marriage: "He now says that he is against same-sex marriage. But his rhetoric and record is so mixed on homosexual rights issues that it is hard to know what to expect."

On the role of government: "Mitt Romney will spend way too much money and will promote programs at the federal level that properly belong to the states. But, unlike Barack Obama he does not believe in the redistribution of wealth as a moral imperative... He is indifferent to small government conservative views on spending, but he is not an enemy of private property that is inherent in those who believe in the redistribution of wealth."

When I caught up with Farris at his Purcellville, Virginia office on Wednesday he emphasized that his essay was not an endorsement. He wasn't encouraging conservatives to volunteer for Romney, or even vote for him; it's entirely up to them. This matters because Farris isn't just a advocate for the legal rights of homeschoolers—he's the founder of Generation Joshua, an activist organization that sends homeschoolers to swing states in the final weeks before big elections to knock on doors and make phone calls for likeminded politicians. In previous years, those kids (about 2,000 of them) have chipped in for GOP presidential candidates like George W. Bush. But this time around, Farris says, they'll be focusing solely on House and Senate races. "We've previously done it for presidential campaigns, but frankly we haven't been asked."

Still, even if the love isn't there for Romney, he's confident homeschoolers will have enough of an incentive to get out the vote: "The difference this time," Farris says, "is that the fear of a Barack Obama second term is greater than anything I've ever seen."

Parachute Rigger Marines with Combat Logistics Regiment 2 line up and walk towards the UH-1Y for a static line parachute jump at Auxiliary Airfield 2, Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Oct. 5. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Zachary Scanlon.

A quick look at the week that was in the world of political dark money...

the money shot


quote of the week

"The difference in ad rates alone could end up being very important...It looks to be a huge benefit for Obama in the long run."
Wesleyan Media Project codirector Michael Franz, on how the Obama campaign's cash advantage has given the president greater control over advertising than the more super-PAC-reliant Romney, by taking advantage of cheaper ad rates offered to candidates. An Ohio ad buy that cost a conservative super-PAC $900, for instance, cost the Obama campaign just $125 for a similar spot. As a result, more pro-Obama ads have aired in crucial swing states.


attack ad of the week

As the presidential race hits the home stretch, Karl Rove's American Crossroads super-PAC continues to hit Obama hard. A new ad claims that Obama will increase taxes on small businesses and add to the federal debt while costing more Americans their jobs. "Another four years focused on everything but jobs?" the ad asks. "No thanks." It's running in the battleground states of Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio, a state that Obama has consistently held a small lead in and could be the deciding factor in the race to 270 electoral votes.


stat of the week

$1 million: You may have heard the allegations that the Obama campaign has been accepting illegal foreign donations, a story first debunked in 2008, then again this week. There's no evidence Obama has accepted donations from abroad, but the law is murkier when it comes to companies donating to outside groups, which may in fact have skirted the rules to accept foreign cash. Case in point: In August, the pro-Romney super-PAC Restore Our Future received $1 million from Connecticut reinsurance company OddyseyRe, a "wholly owned subsidiary" of a Canadian insurance firm. While foreign nationals are prohibited from donating to any group influencing a US election, the law post-Citizens United isn't so clear when it comes to domestic subsidiaries of foreign companies.


race of the week

Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren is neck-and-neck in her race against Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown. The two are running fairly even in money spent for and against them by outside groups in 2012, which has been limited by a "people's pledge" between the two candidates meant to prohibit the groups from running ads. Over the past two years, however, two outside groups supporting Warren, the League for Conservation Voters and the League of Women voters, have spent more than $4 million on mailers and other get-out-the-vote efforts like door-hangers (below). That's more than double what Rove's Crossroads super-PAC/nonprofit network has spent on various ads including robocalls.


more Mojo dark-money coverage

Why Did This Clean-Energy Group Fund a Pro-Coal, Pro-Oil Outfit?: The Energy Foundation sponsors the Sierra Club, Earthjustice…and a nonprofit that pushes fossil fuels and opposes environmental regulation.
Scoop: Ben & Jerry's Cofounder Wants to Freeze Money in Politics: Ice cream magnate Ben Cohen wants to lick Citizens United, one dollar bill at a time.
Would an Obama Win Hurt Campaign Finance Reform?: If the president raises $1 billion and beats the super-PACs, will it undermine efforts to roll back Citizens United?
Can This Super-PAC Stop Tammy Duckworth's Surge?: The Now or Never super-PAC thinks millions of dollars can save Rep. Joe Walsh's seat. Is it right—or delusional?


more must-reads

• A look at the corporate lobbyists behind most of the pro-Romney super-PACs. The Nation
• 70 percent of the $174 million spent by Karl Rove's American Crossroads super-PAC and its affiliated Crossroads GPS 501(c)(4) has come from anonymous donors. Sunlight Foundation
• A new collaborative effort by the Sunlight Foundation and Free Press tracks political TV ads. Political Ad Sleuth

Conspicuously absent from the first Presidential debate in Denver last week: Any mention, by President Obama, of the most damaging quote of his opponent's political career—Mitt Romney's dismissal of the 47 percent of Americans as "entitled" moochers. At Thursday's vice presidential debate, Joe Biden didn't make that mistake.

The veep lit into Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, seizing on the congressman's own assertion that America was increasingly becoming a nation of takers:

We knew we had to act for the middle class. We immediately went out and rescued General Motors. We went ahead and made sure that we cut taxes for the middle class. And in addition to that, when that — when that occurred, what did Romney do? Romney said, “No, let Detroit go bankrupt.” We moved in and helped people refinance their homes. Governor Romney said, “No, let foreclosures hit the bottom.”

But it shouldn’t be surprising for a guy who says 47 percent of the American people are unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives. My friend recently in a speech in Washington said “30 percent of the American people are takers.”

These people are my mom and dad — the people I grew up with, my neighbors. They pay more effective tax than Governor Romney pays in his federal income tax. They are elderly people who in fact are living off of Social Security. They are veterans and people fighting in Afghanistan right now who are, quote, "not paying any tax."

I’ve had it up to here with this notion that 47 percent — it’s about time they take some responsibility here. And instead of signing pledges to Grover Norquist not to ask the wealthiest among us to contribute to bring back the middle class, they should be signing a pledge saying to the middle class we’re going to level the playing field; we’re going to give you a fair shot again; we are going to not repeat the mistakes we made in the past by having a different set of rules for Wall Street and Main Street, making sure that we continue to hemorrhage these tax cuts for the super wealthy.

President Obama's deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter made the ill-advised assessment Thursday that the deaths of four Americans in an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was only a "political topic" because of Mitt Romney's campaign. Her remarks, first spotlighted by Andrew Kaczynski at Buzzfeed, drew an onslaught of retort. Cutter's defenders have insisted she was taken out of context; here is a transcript of her full comments:

Well, we are still investigating. In fact, we are today still investigating and, you know, there are two things that as soon as that attack occured, two things. One, getting to the bottom of that attack to figure out exactly what happened and bringing those people to justice. And that's what the administration has been focused on. You know, what you saw there is the administration giving you their best intelligence, what their best intelligence were telling them of what was happening on the ground and had we had any different information we would have put it out. We would have told the American people what we know and, you know, in terms of the politicization of this, we are here at a debate and I hope we get to talk about the debate, but the entire reason that this has become the, you know, political topic it is is because of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. It's a big part of their stump speech and it's reckless and irresponsible what they're doing—[Cutter is cut off]

I've written before about the wrongheadedness of arguing that "tragedies" should be kept outside the realm of politics, because politics are in fact how societies negotiate solutions to difficult problems. The murder of Americans abroad is, by definition, an important political topic, and it involves key questions about the Obama administration's handling of matters in Libya.

On Thursday, Fox Business Network reported that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was preparing to convene a hearing on September's positive jobs report. The surprising drop in the official US unemployment rate, from 8.1 percent in August to 7.8 percent last month, inspired something of a "job truther" movement—a group comprising the likes of ex-GE CEO Jack Welch and tea party congressman Allen West (R-Fla.) that has put forth the theory that the Obama administration cooked the books in an election year to make the economy seem far rosier than it actually is. (If you're looking for a swift debunking of this claim, click here.)

Here's the clip of Fox Business breaking the story, using an excerpt from an interview with Greta Van Susteren:

ThinkProgress, going off the Fox Business segment, reported that Issa was preparing a "congressional investigation into [the] September jobs number conspiracy," and that Issa was "buying into a widely-discredited conspiracy theory" when he "promised to look into the matter."

The claim was widely circulated on Twitter and picked up by other news outlets.

There's just one problem: Nowhere in the Fox clip does Issa actually say he's going to hold a hearing on any jobs report "conspiracy" involving the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or that he believes the Obama administration orchestrated a massive conspiracy. Fox Business reported that Issa had told Van Susteren he "wants to have hearings" on the "fluky" jobs report and methodology, but the report does not include a soundbite of Issa saying so.

The quickest way to understand the dynamic of the Massachusetts Senate race was to tune into Wednesday night's debate and listen for the proper nouns.

Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren, with the exception of a couple ultra-local references—Westover Air Reserve Base's new C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft—kept it national. She mentioned Mitt Romney and the Republican party four times apiece, Grover Norquist three times, President Obama twice, and New Gingrich once. Sen. Scott Brown (R), desperate to convince Massachusetts' largely moderate electorate he's super-independent, never once mentioned either of the two major parties, nor did he identify either of the major presidential candidates by name. Instead, he did everything but pull out a copy of the Springfield Yellow Pages and start reading from it. He mentioned Milano's (a local restaurant), Friendly's (a local chain), the Big E (the local state fair), Mass. Mutual (the local insurance giant), former Springfield Mayor Charles Ryan, and Celtics legend Bob Cousy—all two times apiece. He talked up Boston College, Tufts University, Wakefield High School, and Bristol Community College.

Brown, trailing in 9 of the 11 most recent polls, is trying to disassociate himself from the Republican party. But it's looking like a losing battle. Here's what I thought was the most illuminating moment of the debate. It was Warren taking Brown to task on equal pay and reproductive rights—and then, after Brown responds, hammering him again almost verbatim a few minutes later:

This is a side of Warren—righteous anger—we really hadn't seen in either of the first two debates. And it's especially damaging because it frames Brown as squarely in the embrace of the national GOP. As Warren put it, "These issues were decided until the Republicans brought them back."

A CH-47F Chinook helicopter takes off as soldiers assigned to 3rd Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment, Task Force Storm, currently attached to the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, begin to hook up equipment used to set up a Jump Forward Arming and Refueling Point as part of an exercise in Afghanistan, Oct. 3, 2012. Photo by Sgt. Daniel Schroeder.

In Ohio, possibly the decisive swing state in this year's presidential race, 10 billboard ads around Cleveland warn in big block letters and exclamation points that voter fraud is a felony punishable by up to three and a half years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

That might seem like an odd way to spend election-year advertising money, given that in-person voter fraud is less common than UFO sightings. Yet evidence suggests that the creators of the billboards, who identify themselves only as a "private family foundation," care less about voter fraud per se than scaring away certain voters from the polls.

In 2008, nearly 70 percent of voters in the county that includes Cleveland cast ballots for Barack Obama. While that on its own might suggest a partisan motivation behind the billboards, a closer examination of their locations indicates something worse: a calculated effort to target Democratic-leaning racial and ethnic minorities.

In this map of Cleveland, created by Eric Fischer using 2010 census data, each dot represents 25 residents. Red dots are Caucasians, blue dots are African Americans, orange dots are Hispanics, green dots are Asians, and yellow dots are members of other racial and ethnic groups. I've added stars to indicate the locations of the billboards. As you can see, all of the stars are in areas that are either mostly black, or, in the case of the inset, significantly black, Asian, and Hispanic:

Location of "VOTER FRAUD IS A FELONY!" billbords in Cleveland Eric Fischer/Josh HarkinsonLocation of "VOTER FRAUD IS A FELONY!" billboards in Cleveland Eric Fischer/Josh Harkinson

"When you have the words 'felony,' 'voter,' and 'fine' all the the same message, and by placing it where it is, the only message that you are intending to send is that this is a threat to you if you vote," Cleveland Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland told the Plain Dealer (see video below). "It's just a blatant attempt to keep people in this community, particularly black people and poor people, from voting."

UPDATE: Readers report seeing the same billboards in Madisonville, Ohio (a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Cincinnati) and in Oak Creek and Souuth Milwaukee, blue-collar areas in Wisconsin.