By Deepa Seetharaman
NEW ORLEANS, Jan 27 (Reuters) - Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remained vague on Monday about whether she would run for president in 2016 and said the militant attack in Benghazi, Libya, was the biggest regret of her four years as the top U.S. diplomat.
Before a large crowd of politically active car dealers, the overwhelming favorite among Democratic presidential contenders discussed her signal accomplishments, notably a recommendation that U.S. commandos go into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden, and her regrets.
"My biggest regret is what happened in Benghazi," she said during a question-and-answer session after her keynote speech at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention in a packed, 4,000-seat room.
Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed when militants attacked the lightly protected U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi and a better-fortified CIA base nearby on the night of Sept. 11, 2012.
The attack became a political flashpoint in the run-up to the 2012 election, with Republicans arguing that President Barack Obama tried to play down its significance as he campaigned for a second term. Republicans are sure to make it an issue if Clinton runs in 2016.
The selection of Clinton as the speaker at the three-day NADA conference, attended by more than 22,000 dealers, met vocal opposition. NADA, which declined to say how much she was paid for her appearance, said she was selected because she offered an important perspective.
Dealers are a politically active group and tend to be conservative. They gave more than $16 million to political campaigns in 2012, 85 percent to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
"Mrs. Clinton is a polarizing figure but that's OK," David Shepard, a NADA director and a dealer in Fort Scott, Kansas, said. He added that the selection was not a NADA endorsement of Clinton as a possible presidential candidate.
STRONG TIES TO INDUSTRY
Clinton peppered her speech with anecdotes about the Clinton family's strong ties to the dealer industry - although she herself has not driven since 1996.
She was introduced by Arkansas dealer and NADA director Jack Caldwell, who went to elementary school with former President Bill Clinton.
Bill Clinton's father and uncle were Buick dealers, she said. She also joked about her first two cars, including the yellow Fiat she had while teaching at the University of Arkansas that was eventually stolen.
She also highlighted the American auto industry's importance in establishing the U.S. presence around the world. She singled out a General Motors engine plant in Uzbekistan, which gave the United States an edge in a area where it is competing for influence with China, she said.
"She has a pretty good understanding about what we do, especially in business," said Chris Daggs, a Ford Motor Co dealer in Crestview, Florida. "I've always felt she was someone more in our corner as a dealer."
The last time the conference was held in New Orleans was in 2009, just before the federal bailout of General Motors and Chrysler Group LLC, which Clinton supported, that helped save the two companies and dealers nationwide.
As expected, Clinton remained vague about whether or not she would run for president in 2016. But she applauded General Motors' selection of Mary Barra as its top executive - the first time a woman has ever run a major car company.
"We have a lot of women in the corporate pipeline who have been working in their industries for a long time and are finally in a position where I think they could be given the opportunity for leadership like Mary Barra," she said. (Reporting by Deepa Seetharaman; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)
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