WASHINGTON: US presidential candidates from both parties competed to exploit Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, using it to advertise their foreign policy experience and personal contacts with Pakistan. With less than a week before the Iowa caucus, the crucial first round of state-by-state voting that will decide the nominees for the November 2008 presidential election, the former Pakistan prime minister’s death is being treated as the sort of event that could sway the result.
With Miss Bhutto’s killing – unusually prominent for a foreign story on network news bulletins – several candidates or their aides suggested that the turmoil in Pakistan raised the bar for the qualities required of the next commander-in-chief. A row over experience quickly broke out between the campaigns of former First Lady Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, her young challenger for the Democratic Party’s nomination.
One of the leading Republicans, John McCain, made perhaps the most blatant attempt to turn events to his advantage. “My theme has been throughout this campaign that I’m the one with the experience, the knowledge, the judgment,” the veteran senator and former Vietnam War fighter pilot said after a campaign event in Iowa. “So perhaps it [the assassination] may serve to enhance those credentials to make people understand that I’ve been to Pakistan, I know Musharraf, I can pick up the phone and call him. I knew Benazir Bhutto.”
He was not alone in mentioning by name Miss Bhutto or Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president, as candidates proved unable to limit themselves to statements of regrets and appeals for calm. Former Democratic vice-presidential nominee and 2008 candidate John Edwards said he spoke to the Pakistani leader by telephone and “urged him to continue the democratisation process”.
On the campaign trail in Iowa, Mrs Clinton stressed her personal relationship with Miss Bhutto. “This is a terrible loss – certainly on a personal level – for those of us who knew her,” she said, adding: “It certainly raises the stakes high for what we expect from our next president. I know from a lifetime of working to make change.” Mr Obama’s chief strategist David Axelrod hit back at Mrs Clinton’s implication that the Illinois senator was too inexperienced to handle an international crisis, which has been a running sore during the long campaign. He said that al-Qa’eda, suspected in Miss Bhutto’s murder, had been emboldened by the Iraq war, which Mrs Clinton initially supported.
“That’s a serious difference between these candidates and I’m sure that people will take that into consideration,” he said. Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama are divided by just a few percentage points in most opinion polls, with 2004 vice-presidential candidate Mr Edwards just behind. The battle for the Republican nomination could be won by any one of four candidates.
Some candidates were left embarrassed by their reactions to the assassination. Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, expressed “sincere concern and apologies for what has happened in Pakistan”. His campaign later issued a statement saying he meant “sympathies” not “apologies”. He also asked whether this was the time to lift the state of emergency in Pakistan, something which happened several weeks ago.-SANA