The assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto has changed the face of politics in Iowa and perhaps for the rest of the presidential campaign. The tragic event has created a sea change of emphasis, focusing on experience over all else.

Specifically, Senator John McCain’s association with national security issues will give even added importance to McCain’s experience on foreign policy issues. McCain has been to Pakistan, knew Bhutto, and has a line of communication open to Pakistani president Musharraf. McCain’s political career spans 25 years, beginning with his election to the House of Representatives in 1982 and the Senate in 1986. His recent endorsement by the Des Moines Register focused on McCain’s experience in foreign affairs.

“McCain would enter the White House with deep knowledge of national security and foreign policy issues,” the paper declared. “He knows war, something we believe would make him reluctant to start one. He’s also a fierce defender of civil liberties. As a survivor of torture, he has stood resolutely against it.”

The last reference, of course, concerns McCain’s career as a naval aviator, shot down over Vietnam, captured, and held in solitary confinement for five years. The Register notes that as the son of a prominent Navy admiral, McCain probably could have gained early release, but refused to do so, even though he broke both arms and a leg when the plane crashed and was subjected to regular beatings and other forms of torture.

Sizing up the other candidates, the Register notes that their accomplishments have been “on smaller stages” and that it is McCain who “is most ready to lead America in a complex and dangerous world.” This endorsement, of course, was written weeks before the tragic death of

Benazir Bhutto yesterday, thus sparing McCain the possible pitfall of appearing to exploit her assassination for political gain.

Candidates of both parties, meanwhile, have been scrambling to revise or completely change the text of their upcoming speeches. Barack Obama, for example, had planned a speech yesterday entitled, “Stand for Change.” Hillary Clinton, reports The Wall Street Journal, had prepared a talk about housing and the economy. Her topic quickly shifted to Mrs. Bhutto’s death and how Hillary “had known her personally since the 1980s.”

Senators Joseph Biden and Christopher Dodd have significant international experience. Biden is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Dodd is a member of the foreign relations panel. In fact, Biden has frequently focused on the problems of a destabilized Pakistan, but prior to yesterday’s murder of Bhutto, such talk usually caused audiences’ eyes to glaze over. It is doubtful that at this late date Biden and Dodd can make much additional headway on the campaign trail.

The high tide of global terrorism in Pakistan will clearly not raise all boats in the races for the U.S. presidential nomination. While candidates such as McCain and possibly Rudy Giuliani will gain more than other candidates from this sad affair, some of the contenders are getting a stark second look from the voters. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, for instance, has been portrayed as having very little foreign policy credentials. The newest crisis in Pakistan will undoubtedly reduce Huckabee’s surge in the presidential contest in Iowa. Until yesterday, to Huckabee’s benefit, foreign affairs, as a prominent issue, was moving backwards.

And while Bhutto’s assassination might seem a precise, on-target issue for Rudy Giuliani, he has been the centerpiece for a series of unflattering personal issues recently. Hillary Clinton has come under intense criticism for a couple of major gaffs during the debates, as well as a constant target for Barak Obama’s contention that being a first lady does not translate into experience, especially since she is “the master of a broken system in Washington.” Yet Pollster John Zogby believes that Hillary will be helped by the timing of Mrs. Bhutto’s assassination, “especially with her husband at her side.”

All in all, it is regrettable and distressful that it took the killing of a world leader to focus the U.S. presidential campaign on the rightful topic of foreign affairs. But having said that, the current strategy is to stress and promote experience in these crucial areas. While Senator John McCain’s claim to experience, knowledge and judgment as foremost among his credentials has suddenly taken on added meaning and significance, he is careful to walk the finest of lines, saying: “I hate for anything like this to be the cause of any political gain for anybody.”


Be Sociable, Share!