Presidential candidates talk tough on terrorism after Bhutto's death
Terrorism — and who's best equipped to deal with it — came roaring back as a top presidential-campaign issue Thursday as news...
DES MOINES, Iowa — Terrorism — and who's best equipped to deal with it — came roaring back as a top presidential-campaign issue Thursday as news spread that Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated.
Almost instantly, candidates who struggled in recent months to convince voters that worldly experience matters had fresh urgency for tough talk on terrorism just days before the Iowa caucuses next Thursday.
Democratic New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has emphasized her experience, pounded home her message with a personal touch.
"I have known Benazir Bhutto for more than 12 years," the former first lady told a crowd of a few hundred at a fire station in Denison, a meatpacking town where Pakistan usually isn't discussed much.
Clinton spoke of how she'd visited the then-prime minister in the 1990s, and how "we stayed in touch over the years, met on several occasions, always talked about her commitment to bringing democracy back to Pakistan."
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, also a Democrat, responded with a withering rebuke to Clinton's experience, depicting her lengthy political résumé as a hindrance to solving big problems, including crises overseas.
"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," Obama said. "You can't fall in line behind the conventional thinking on issues as profound as war and offer yourself as the leader who is best prepared to chart a new and better course for America."
His remarks came as part of the unveiling of a new speech meant to reinforce his change agenda to Iowa voters.
But at every stop Thursday, he started with a few words about the Bhutto assassination. "She was a respected and resilient advocate for the democratic aspirations of the Pakistani people," he said. "We join with them in mourning her loss, and stand with them in their quest for democracy and against the terrorists who threaten the common security of the world."
Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod later tied the killing to the war in Iraq and Clinton's vote to approve the latter, which he argued diverted U.S resources from fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, both hotbeds for al-Qaida.
On the Republican side, Arizona Sen. John McCain emphasized his message that it's a tough world and he knows how to deal with it.
At a town-hall meeting at an Elks Club in Des Moines, he dispensed with his usual warm-up jokes, giving the standing-room-only crowd a somber, six-minute extemporaneous speech on Bhutto's assassination, its potential geopolitical impact and what he'd do as president to deal with "a very tense and unsteady time in Pakistan."
"I know the players, I know the individuals and I know the best way to address the situation," McCain said.
A few miles west, in Urbandale, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson spoke about the assassination for about 15 minutes without notes. He had no pat answers; he only asked the crowd to consider the possibilities, and how a man of his experience at least could understand them.
In New Hampshire, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, said the slaying illustrated the need for Western nations to support moderate Muslims and oppose violent extremism.
He rejected the suggestion that McCain or former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani would be better equipped to deal with terrorism as president because of their experience.
"If the answer for leading the country is someone who has a lot of foreign-policy experience, we can just go down to the State Department and pick up any of the tens of thousands of people who spent all their life in foreign policy. That's not what a nation needs in a president," he said.
Giuliani, who has made his city's response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks the centerpiece of his campaign, was in Florida on Thursday.
"[Bhutto's] death is a reminder that terrorism anywhere — whether in New York, London, Tel Aviv or Rawalpindi — is an enemy of freedom," he said. "We must redouble our efforts to win the terrorists' war on us."
Some Democrats, notably those who spent the year peddling their bulky résumés, joined Clinton in reminding voters how long they've been working on these issues.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, scheduled what aides called a "major speech" about Pakistan and the war on terrorism today in Des Moines.
Richardson said Thursday that President Bush should pressure Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf — who took power in a coup in 1999 — to quit, and if he won't, the United States should cut off military help to the government.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, called the assassination "devastating news for the people of Pakistan, and my prayers go out to them."
Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat, recalled meeting Bhutto and noted late Thursday: "I spoke to President Musharraf a few minutes ago, and I urged him to continue the democratization process because of how important it is to the Pakistani people and how important it is to his country."
Another Democratic challenger, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden of Delaware, reminded voters of his own credentials.
"Senator Biden has long warned that Pakistan is one of the most complex countries we deal with, and that its stability and America's security are linked," a statement from his office said. It reminded voters that Biden spoke to a New Hampshire audience Nov. 8 on "A New Approach to Pakistan."
Material from The Washington Post is included in this report.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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