Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., and other black Democrats say they're especially upset Republicans continually use variations of the word "incompetent" to describe Rice, 48, a potential secretary of state nominee who was a Rhodes scholar, Clinton administration assistant secretary of state and Brookings Institution senior fellow. At Brookings she focused on U.S. foreign policy, weak and failing states, the implications of global poverty and transnational threats to security.
Republicans have harshly criticized her for more than two months for saying Sept. 16 the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, began as a "spontaneous reaction" to an anti-Islamic video widely disseminated throughout the Arab and Muslim world that had also set off protests elsewhere.
Later State Department accounts made no mention of a protest in the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Instead, they pointed to the extremist Ansar al-Sharia militia, as well as al-Qaida's North African arm, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
Intelligence officials said such a lag was typical of the ever-changing process of piecing together shreds of information into a coherent picture fit for officials' public statements.
Rice later said her characterization was based on CIA talking points given to her in briefings.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Sunday David Petraeus, CIA director at the time, told lawmakers Sept. 12 the attack was terrorism.
Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat after Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer- D-Md., told The Washington Post Tuesday disputing Rice's remarks is one thing, but calling her incompetent amounts to using racial "code words."
"We in the South know what that means," he said. "I take offense when people use those words. I have a problem with them.
"They are going to disagree with Rice's politics, but if they do, just say she's wrong," Clyburn told the Post. "When you apply the word 'incompetent,' that personalizes this thing. It goes beyond politics because it's about who and what she is -- it's character assassination."
His statement was similar to comments made Friday by new Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, who suggested Rice was targeted by the GOP for her race and sex.
House terrorism subcommittee Chairman Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., sent a letter to President Barack Obama Monday saying Rice's public comments after the Benghazi attack "caused irreparable damage to her credibility both at home and around the world."
The letter, signed by 96 other House Republicans, said Rice "either willfully or incompetently misled the American public in the Benghazi matter."
It said replacing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with Rice as "the face of U.S. foreign policy" in Obama's second term "would greatly undermine your desire to improve U.S. relations with the world and continue to build trust with the American people."
Duncan was out of the country and unavailable for comment, but Duncan spokesman Allen Klump told the Post Clyburn's suggestions of racism were "baseless, false and disappointing."