By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Republican who will lead an investigation of the 2012 attacks on U.S. diplomatic quarters in Benghazi was known for courtroom theatrics in his time as a prosecutor, portending dramatic hearings on an issue that already has strained partisan civility in Washington.
Republicans hope to gain political traction before congressional elections in November by accusing the White House of muddying the facts to protect President Barack Obama after the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans were killed in the attacks by Islamic militants.
Democrats have not said whether they will take any seats on the Republican-majority special committee, saying the new probe - following several other congressional investigations on Benghazi - is also aimed at damaging former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's chances if she runs for president in 2016.
Representative Trey Gowdy, the 49-year-old from South Carolina chosen by House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner to chair the panel, is a Christian conservative elected to Congress in 2010 on the wave of the Tea Party movement.
Gowdy came with a reputation for tenacity, and dug into various probes of the Obama administration. He is outspokenly critical of its handling of the Benghazi matter.
In a briefing last year, Washington reporters were given a flavor of what Gowdy's leadership of the hearings might be like. He pointedly asked, "Can you tell me why Chris Stevens was in Benghazi the night that he was killed?" and "Does it bother you whether or not you know why Chris Stevens was in Benghazi?"
Gowdy's office declined an interview request.
Those who knew Gowdy during his 16 years as a state and federal prosecutor in South Carolina say he also has a gift of the gab and a willingness to tug on jurors' heartstrings.
"He certainly was not above putting on a good show," said defense attorney Ricky Harris of Spartanburg in South Carolina's northwestern "Upstate." Gowdy was a federal prosecutor in the area from 1994 to 2000, when he was elected to become a state prosecutor. He now represents the region in Congress.
Harris, who ran and lost as a Democrat for statehouse in 1990, recalled that Gowdy once strolled into a Spartanburg courtroom wheeling a rolling bookcase at the start of a drug-trafficking trial. A King James version of the Bible was prominently displayed, along with some law books.
Harris suspected Gowdy of wanting to impress the jury and was concerned the Bible was intended to suggest the prosecution's case had the backing of a higher authority. Harris asked the judge to order the removal of the Bible.
"That set off a firestorm," Harris said. He said Gowdy "was highly offended that I would have any problem at all with him bringing the Bible into the courtroom." But the judge agreed with Harris, and the Bible had to go.
Spartanburg attorney Rick Vieth, who has also run as a Democrat, joked that "I didn't know what I was getting into" when Gowdy won a murder conviction against his client, Bob Harry Fowler, in 1997. Fowler was accused of killing a man to stop him testifying in a drug trial.
In closing arguments, Gowdy gave a powerful description of victim Ricky Samuel's last moments as he was lured to a pond by the accused, who posed as a preacher to get Samuel's confidence.
"Walking down to the water with a preacher ... not to be baptized, but to meet Jesus because you had two bullets pumped in the back of your head," Gowdy said, according to a 1997 media account published on GoUpstate.com.
Gowdy successfully prosecuted seven death penalty cases in state courts. In 2008 he won an award from the Association of Government Attorneys in Capital Litigation. Gowdy also was nominated for an award by the Drug Enforcement Administration, which called him an "agent's prosecutor" who will "give it 120 percent all the time."
Spartanburg attorney Michael Morin, who opposed Gowdy in a death penalty case and later worked for him in the prosecutor's office, said Gowdy excelled at appealing to a jury's emotions.
"He is always well prepared, he is going to know the facts. He is most effective when he taps into emotion," Morin said.
Vieth expects Gowdy to go after what happened in Benghazi as relentlessly as he pursued cases in South Carolina courtrooms.
"He is going to be a great fact-finder, and let the chips fall where they may. If it's favorable to Obama, fine; if not, fine," Vieth said.
(Editing by Caren Bohan and Grant McCool)