How the 2016ers Played at the Benghazi Hearings

Wednesday's hearings with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may have been about Benghazi, but they also stoked some 2016 chatter, as they included three politicians who could wind up as big names in the next presidential election.

In the hot seat: potential Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who was back on her stomping grounds on Capitol Hill, where she served as a senator representing New York state for eight years. In one of her final appearances in her post as secretary of state, Clinton was animated, combative, emotional and at times defiant as she endured nearly five hours of questioning from both sides of Congress about the September attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which left four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, dead.

As she went head-to-head with senators at Wednesday morning's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, two possible Republican opponents had the opportunity to throw questions at the Democratic star, providing each of the participants with potential footage for future campaign ads.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who sits atop many potential 2016 candidate lists, adopted a mild-mannered approach, first welcoming Clinton before questioning her about her knowledge of the security situation in Benghazi before the attack.

"We all wish that … this had never had happened, so this hearing would never have had to happen. But it's good. We're glad to see you here and wish you all the best," Rubio said. Clinton responded, "I appreciate your kind words. … I reiterate my taking responsibility."

"Were you ever asked to participate in any sort of internal or interagency meeting with, before this attack, with regard to the deteriorating security situation in Libya?" Rubio asked.

But Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who told ABC News' Jonathan Karl last year that he's "interested" in a 2016 run, delivered a much harsher greeting to Clinton, saying he would have fired her if he had been president.

"I'm glad that you're accepting responsibility. I think that ultimately, with your leaving, you accept the culpability for the worst tragedy since 9/11. And I really mean that," Paul said. "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, and I would have relieved you of your post. I think it's inexcusable."

The Kentucky senator didn't stop there. When he got to his questioning, Paul asked whether the U.S. had routed weapons from Libya to Turkey.

"To Turkey? I will have to take that question for the record," Clinton said in response. "Nobody's ever raised that with me."

But amid the questioning from her potential future opponents, many Democrats were not shy about voicing their admiration for Clinton, and one expressed her hope that secretary of state won't be Clinton's final political post.

"You will be sorely missed, but I for one hope not for too long," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said.

The Benghazi hearings were not the first political moment this year that pitted future presidential contenders against one another. When it came to voting on the fiscal cliff deal earlier this month, Republican heavyweights fell on different sides. Paul and Rubio voted against the deal, while Rep. Paul Ryan, R- Wis., Mitt Romney's running mate who might make his own run for the presidency, came out in support of the plan, which Vice President Joe Biden, another politician with his eye on 2016, helped broker.

Days later, Ryan voted against a bill that would provide $50 billion of additional relief for victims of superstorm Sandy, many of whom hail from the state of another possible 2016er - Gov. Chris Christie - of New Jersey.