Assassination Reverberates Through U.S. Presidential Race


By: Wall Street Journal

By JACKIE CALMES

The assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto reverberated through tight races for the U.S. presidential nomination in both parties and potentially gives an edge to candidates boasting of experience over those promising change.

All year, voters have indicated they are weighing the need for seasoned leaders against their desire to shake up Washington. Recent polls had shown a tilt toward change. On the Democratic side, a shift now — just as some voters are making up their minds — could benefit New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, whose campaign since January has promoted her “strength and experience.” And that would come at the expense of chief rival Barack Obama, the freshman Illinois senator who threatens her in both Iowa’s Jan. 3 caucuses and New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary five days later.

Among Republicans, the news played to the strengths of Arizona Sen. John McCain, long identified with national-security issues, just as the onetime front-runner was showing signs of a comeback. It could also boost the flagging candidacy of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has parlayed his celebrity as a leader after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks into a campaign focused on antiterrorism.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, meanwhile, could be at a disadvantage just as he had lately surged from dark horse to leading the Republican field in Iowa and national polls, powered by his appeal to fellow Christian conservatives. He has few foreign-policy credentials, and in fact mistakenly suggested yesterday that Pakistan remains under martial law, although the state of emergency was lifted this month.

The news of the former Pakistani premier’s death whipsawed attention back to matters of war and global terrorism after months in which those issues had receded in voters’ minds, according to polls and interviews. Supplanting them were concerns about a shaky economy at home, and domestic issues such as health-insurance costs and housing foreclosures. But as the bulletins from Rawalpindi, the site of the attack, broke in Des Moines and Manchester, the presidential candidates were immediately quizzed by reporters and voters seeking a presidential-level response to an event that threatened to plunge nuclear-armed Pakistan, which is both a key U.S. ally and a base for militant extremists, into chaos.

“Events like this assassination do impact the course of the campaign,” said Tad Devine, a veteran Democratic strategist who is unaffiliated this year. “We saw this in 2004, when the release of the Osama bin Laden tape helped Bush in the closing days of the election” against his Democratic challenger, John Kerry. Mr. Devine said that among Republicans, Sen. McCain and Mr. Giuliani “will be able to talk about this contemporaneous event in the context of their messages on terrorism.” As for Democrats, “Senator Clinton can remind people how dangerous the world is, and how important it will be to have an experienced leader as president.”

But, Mr. Devine cautioned, “anyone who looks like they are exploiting an event like this could suffer politically.”

Attention to the Bhutto assassination intruded on Sen. Obama’s plans for a speech yesterday entitled “Stand for Change,” which his campaign had promoted in advance as his closing argument to Iowa’s Democratic caucus-goers. His text incorporated his critique of Sen. Clinton’s claims to experience, without naming her. “You can’t at once argue that you’re the master of a broken system in Washington and offer yourself as the person to change it,” he said.

Separately, Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod linked the assassination and the long-building instability of President Pervez Musharraf’s Pakistan to Sen. Clinton’s 2002 vote authorizing President Bush to go to war in Iraq — a vote also cast by Democratic candidates Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, senators from Delaware and Connecticut respectively, as well as former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who is in a three-way dead heat in Iowa with Sens. Clinton and Obama. Mr. Obama often notes that he publicly opposed the war resolution in 2002 as an Illinois state senator. The Iraq war, Mr. Axelrod argued, allowed extremists to gain the upper hand in parts of Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan. “It’s a consequence of our taking our eye off of the ball,” he said.

Sen. Clinton, who had planned to talk about housing and the economy at a rally in Lawton, Iowa, shifted to condemn the assassination, to recall Ms. Bhutto as someone she had known personally since the late 1980s, and to stress the need for “picking a president who is ready on day one, who is ready to deal with the myriad of problems.”

Democrat Bill Richardson, the New Mexico governor who has boasted of his experience as President Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations, had the most muscular reaction. He called on President Bush to suspend military aid to Pakistan and “press Musharraf to step aside” in favor of a new coalition government, because he has failed to hunt down terrorists and had destabilized the country by “his attempts to cling to power.” Mr. Richardson also scheduled a speech for today in Des Moines to reiterate that call.

He got disagreement from Sen. Biden, who likewise has sought to break out of the back of the Democratic pack by spotlighting his long international experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he is now chairman. “We don’t have all the facts,” he said. If there isn’t a fair election next month as scheduled, “then I would call for him to step down.”

Mr. Biden also emphasized that he had known Ms. Bhutto since 1986, saying “I’ve spoken with her several times” since she returned to Pakistan from exile this fall and was campaigning for parliamentary elections Jan. 8. Mr. Biden recalled that he had twice urged President Musharraf to provide better security for Ms. Bhutto and other politicians, before and after a first attempt on her life in October; his failure to do so raises “hard questions” for the government and Pakistani security services.

Republicans McCain and Giuliani also walked the fine line between burnishing their self-described credentials and exploiting the tragedy. Mr. Giuliani already planned to air a new television ad recalling Sept. 11. But rivals Mr. McCain and Mitt Romney each dismissed Mr. Giuliani’s experience that day as seasoning for the presidency. “It has very little to do with national security issues,” Mr. McCain said.

“I know Musharraf, I can pick the phone and call him,” he added. “I knew Benazir Bhutto. I know the area. But I hate for anything like this to be the cause of any political gain for anybody.”

–Amy Chozick, Elizabeth Holmes, Laura Meckler, Susan Davis, Christopher Cooper and Alex Frangos contributed to this article.

Write to Jackie Calmes at jackie.calmes@wsj.com

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