Sometimes it takes an event that no one could have foreseen -- in this case, a blast of gunfire on a Pakistani street -- to provide a harsh reminder that this race for the presidency is far larger than the individuals involved.
The assassination of Benazir Bhutto rocked (or maybe just tilted, or simply paused) the presidential contest, only a week before the Iowa caucuses begin to clarify and condense the field.
But watch how quickly this tragedy was tucked neatly into the candidates' closing arguments, confirming and reinforcing wildly disparate worldviews.
It's a reminder of the need to confront the "terrorists' war on us" (Rudy Giuliani); of why you need a candidate with "the experience, the knowledge and the judgment" (John McCain); of the president's need to be "a leader who guides America" (Mitt Romney); and of why you need an old hand in the White House (those deep-resumed denizens of the Democratic second tier).
Even John Edwards, a former senator and -- at this moment -- not a front runner for the presidency managed to get a phone call through to President Pervez Musharraf. (We know you'd love to see to this crisis in your country, but first, Mike Gravel is on line three, Mr. President.)
And just as quickly, Bhutto's assassination became enmeshed in the long-simmering dispute that pits Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.
In case Obama wasn't clear enough in his critique of Clinton's experience argument, strategist David Axelrod provided the link: "She was a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, which we would submit is one of the reasons why we were diverted from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Al Qaeda -- who may have been players in this event today. So that's a judgment she'll have to defend," he said, per ABC News' Kate Snow and Sunlen Miller.
(Priceless Obama quote, courtesy of the Chicago Sun-Times' Lynn Sweet: "No, I, I, I, I, I have to, I heard, I heard, I don't need it, I don't need to hear what you read because I was, I overheard it when he said it, and this is one of those situations where Washington is putting a spin on it. It makes no sense whatsoever.")
Camp Clinton was shocked -- shocked! -- that anyone would play politics with tragedy, but the day's events fit her message rather well, too. "I know from my lifetime of experience you have to be prepared for whatever might happen, and that's particularly true today," Clinton told the AP's David Espo.
Bhutto's death is not quite a game-changer -- yet -- but it's already altered the conversation in the final days before Iowa.
That may be good if you're a veteran senator ready to flash your credentials (or bad if you're a certain former governor who isn't sure about whether martial law had been lifted in Pakistan), but the result is that we'll be talking about terrorism a lot more than we would have otherwise.
Write The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut and Shailagh Murray, "The differing reactions of Clinton and Obama to the assassination crystallized the debate between the two. . . . While aides said Clinton was anxious not to appear to be politicizing Bhutto's death, they nonetheless saw it as a potential turning point in the race with Obama and former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.)."
The Boston Globe's Peter Canellos and Marcella Bombardieri see the races having "shifted to a discussion of terrorism, leaving some campaigns wondering whether the crisis in Pakistan was the kind of unforeseen incident that could change expectations for the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses and beyond."
And the story could grow: "The death of the former prime minister creates a massive political void in this nuclear-armed nation of 165 million people and opens the door to potentially greater violence in a year of almost nonstop tumult here," Griff Witte writes in The Washington Post. "It leaves in tatters Washington's strategy of fighting extremism by pairing Bhutto with Musharraf, a close U.S. ally who has been under siege in the streets for months."
Former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., was the first to stumble: "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 Wall Street Journal's Jackie Calmes reports.
(Huckabee tried to set himself right later in the day, per ABC News' Kevin Chupka: "And what I said was, and it's not that I was unaware that it was suspended two weeks ago, lifted two weeks ago. The point was, continued, would it be reinstated, would it be placed back in -- all the aspects of marshal law have not been completely lifted, even now. There's still a heavy hand I think Musharraf has used.")
It's Clinton and Obama who seem destined to engage most directly on the subject. And their race could not get any tighter: The new Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll has Clinton up 29-26-25 over Obama and John Edwards in Iowa, with Obama up 32-30-18 over Clinton and Edwards in New Hampshire.
Clinton "is viewed as most experienced, best prepared to be president and most qualified to handle a range of important issues, including Iraq, terrorism, the economy and health care," Bloomberg's Heidi Przybyla and Julianna Goldman write. "She also is viewed as the least honest candidate and less likely to produce change in Washington than Obama. . . . Still, Obama, a one-term senator, gets the lowest grades on experience."
Despite the three-way tie in Iowa and two-way tie in New Hampshire, "other poll findings suggest Clinton might gain stature in both states if Democrats' concern about world affairs increases after Thursday's assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto," Janet Hook writes in the Los Angeles Times. "The poll shows that Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire consider Clinton far better equipped than her rivals to safeguard national security -- as do Democrats around the country."
ABC News' Kate Snow and Eloise Harper, assigned to cover camp Clinton, took in an event for both the former first lady and the challenger, resulting in an provocative compare and contrast.
Among the Republicans, it's McCain, R-Ariz., and former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., who appear most likely to benefit from a renewed focus on terrorism. "Perhaps it 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," McCain said, per the Washington Times' Ralph Z. Hallow, questioning the experience of all his rivals.
Rudy -- whose campaign needs a break, badly -- already had a terrorism-themed ad set to start running on Friday. "Giuliani immediately becomes relevant again," Washingtonpost.com's Chris Cillizza writes. "The assassination coincides with Giuliani's decision to directly invoke the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in a new commercial that is running on broadcast channels in New Hampshire and Florida as well on cable nationally."
The Bloomberg/LA Times numbers show some real separation in the lead-off states among the Republicans. Huckabee appears in control of Iowa, up 37-23 over Romney. In New Hampshire, it's Romney 34 percent, McCain 21 percent, Giuliani 14, and Huckabee well back at 9.
And for the Democrats in the second tier, it just may be a chance to put themselves back in the mix. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., used the occasion to remind voters that he's spoken frequently -- and recently -- with both Bhutto and Musharraf. Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., quickly called for Musharraf's ouster -- and scheduled a Des Moines speech for Friday morning to expand on his views.
Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., was sharpest, telling Radio Iowa's O.K. Henderson: "Good, soaring speeches aren't the experience we need at this moment and frankly, even being the First Lady of the United States, it doesn't necessarily qualify for you for dealing with these issues."
None of that appears likely to matter, not as long as Clinton and Obama dominate the discussion.
AP's Ron Fournier interviews both of them about what it means to have change, and gets some sharp responses. Obama suggested that Clinton "would be no more than a 'caretaker' president who represents change only in the sense of replacing a Republican with a Democrat in the White House. Clinton responded coldly, 'I think it matters who is president.' "
Obama delivered a "closing argument" speech on Thursday that probably would have dominated a day that didn't feature the assassination of a major world leader. As it was, it was peppered with tweaks aimed at Clinton and Edwards: "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."
And his big close, per ABC News' Kate Snow and Sunlen Miller: "This is our time. This is our moment!"
For the speech and other reasons, find out why Obama is ABC News' Buzz Maker of the Week.
Edwards on Friday rounds out his final campaign appeal, with a speech in Dubuque, Iowa, that will compare unnamed people who want to compromise their way to change with those "who wanted to negotiate with King George."
Toss aside the "Two Americas" -- this revolution is built on "Four Truths" -- and stark language, per the Edwards campaign:
"1. Everything that makes America America is threatened today.
"2. This election is not just another four-year fight between political parties or competing ideas -- it is an epic struggle for the future of America.
"3. Corporate greed and the very powerful use their money to control Washington, and this corrupting influence is destroying the middle class.
"4. Real change is going to take a real fight. It always does."
(And with that, young Skywalker led the Jedi army into battle with the Empire's clones. . . . )
As for Clinton's closing argument, she's purchased two minutes of Iowa ad time during all of Wednesday night's local news broadcasts, in a buy that's expected to reach more than 500,000 sets of eyeballs. Which raises two questions: First, how do the other candidates respond to that kind of saturation? And second, what can Hillary Clinton possible say in two minutes that she hasn't said in 10 months -- or 15 years, for that matter? http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/28/us/politics/28ads.html
Clinton will be George Stephanopoulos' exclusive guest Sunday on ABC News' "This Week."
McCain spends some time in New Hampshire on Friday, and Giuliani starts his day in Florida. Other than that, if you're not in Iowa, you're not going to see a presidential candidate in action. See the candidates' full schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."
Also in the news:
Just when you thought we knew all we would about Giuliani's years in the private sector (yeah, right), The New York Times' Barry Meier and Eric Lipton report new details of his work for Purdue Pharma, the maker of Oxycontin. "His work for Purdue, the company's first and longest-running client, provides a window into how he used his standing as an eminent lawyer, a Republican insider and a national celebrity to aid a controversial client and build a business fortune," they write.
"A former top federal prosecutor, Mr. Giuliani participated in two meetings between Purdue officials and the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, the agency investigating the company," Meier and Lipton continue. "As a celebrity, Mr. Giuliani helped the company win several public relations battles. . . . Despite these efforts, Purdue suffered a crushing defeat in May at the hands of [US Attorney John] Brownlee when the company and three top executives pleaded guilty to criminal charges."
And it made Rudy some more enemies: "Ed Bisch, whose son died of an OxyContin overdose, said that he believed that Purdue got a free pass for years thanks to Mr. Giuliani. 'It was all because of Giuliani,' said Mr. Bisch. 'And he got to take the money.' "
Romney, R-Mass., is attacking McCain in a new ad in his New Hampshire rotation. "John McCain, an honorable man. But is he the right Republican for the future?" the ad asks. Then the laundry list (courtesy of an ad team that was once on McCain's payroll): "McCain opposes repeal of the death tax. And voted against the Bush tax cuts -- twice. McCain pushed to let every illegal immigrant stay here permanently. Even voted to allow illegals to collect Social Security."
McCain sticks to the high road in his new spot, quoting from his (many) newspaper endorsements. "All across New Hampshire, newspapers agree. The choice is clear. For President: John McCain."
An interesting thing about this year's ad wars -- except for Romney's "comparative" ads that take on Huckabee and now McCain, they are almost universally positive (or, at least, not negative). But outside groups have filled that void. The campaign "may be shaped as much by independent interest groups as by the candidates themselves," Brody Mullins writes in The Wall Street Journal.
Some numbers: "A labor-backed group run by John Edwards's 2004 campaign manager is running more than $1 million in ads supporting the former North Carolina senator. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton has benefited from more than $2 million spent by outside groups. And a labor union that backs Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd recently paid $1,800 for billboard advertising touting his candidacy."
The Concord Monitor's Sarah Liebowitz writes up the help Edwards is getting the SEIU-backed Alliance for a New America. "The group - which is run by Nick Baldick, who managed Edwards's 2004 campaign -- has spent more than $750,000 to reserve television ads in the run-up to Iowa's presidential caucuses," Liebowitz writes.
The New York Sun's Josh Gerstein finds an AFSCME-backed anti-Obama Website. "At the national level of the union, Afscme has endorsed Senator Clinton, but some locals who back Mr. Obama are upset about the criticism of him. As for coordination with Mrs. Clinton's campaign, it doesn't look too tight since (as of this moment) her first name is misspelled on the site."
After months of saying she would reform No Child Left Behind by removing unfunded mandates, Clinton suggested to an Iowa voter on Thursday that she'll push to scrap the law altogether. Per ABC News' Eloise Harper, a voter said to Clinton: "get rid of that 'No Child Left Behind.' " Clinton responded: "I intend to, I intend to, and please caucus for me." No comment from the Clinton campaign.
Clinton wants Iowans to "pick a president," but she's not picking on them to ask her questions.
"Before the brief Christmas break, the New York senator had been setting aside time after campaign speeches to hear from the audience. Now when she's done speaking, her theme songs blare from loudspeakers, preventing any kind of public Q&A," Peter Nicholas writes for the Los Angeles Times. "She was no more inviting when a television reporter approached her after a rally on Thursday and asked if she was 'moved'' by Benazir Bhutto's assassination. Clinton turned away without answering. Her daughter, Chelsea, had the same reaction when a reporter approached her with a question."
Terry McAuliffe is right -- Clinton is winning!
Before the voting has started, she's locked down 158 "superdelegates," well more than Obama's 89 and Edwards' 26, per ABC News' Karen Travers. (Poor Dennis Kucinich has exactly one superdelegate vote in his column -- his own; that's 2,025 delegates away from locking down the nomination.)
But a word of caution: "A similar survey by ABC News in 2004 found Howard Dean leading in the super delegate count before the Iowa caucuses. Yet when John Kerry emerged as the winner there and began his run to the nomination, super delegates began to jump off the Dean ship and throw their support to Kerry," Travers writes.
Politico's Jonathan Martin sees one big obstacle to Romney's attacks on McCain: Romney. "In responding to the charges, McCain's campaign turned to off-the-shelf material sure to take some of the sting out of Romney's attacks -- Romney's own words," Martin writes. "Past statements or positions by the former Massachusetts governor can be found that either completely contradict or at least dilute Romney's present day attacks."
Among all these flawed candidates, "The really interesting and somewhat ironic thing is that even though all these candidates are described as 'unelectable,' one of them is more than likely going to be our next President," he writes. "And one very important aspect of how voters view candidates is that once a candidate gets the nomination of their major party, the public automatically assumes they are qualified and can be president."
Wes Allison of the St. Petersburg Times writes up the GOP battle for South Carolina. "For all the credit Iowa and New Hampshire take for vetting presidential candidates, they often choose losers," Allison writes. Not so in South Carolina, but "in past primary elections, a favorite candidate has emerged among the state's Republican establishment, or maybe two. This year, state party leaders are as fractured as the electorate."
Michelle Obama is profiled on Vanity Fair's Website -- and do we smell the first early buzz about 2012, 2016, and 2020? "To me, it's now or never," she tells Leslie Bennetts. "We're not going to keep running and running and running, because at some point you do get the life beaten out of you. It hasn't been beaten out of us yet. We need to be in there now, while we're still fresh and open and fearless and bold. You lose some of that over time. Barack is not cautious yet; he's ready to change the world, and we need that."
That famous non-candidate who is only interested in running New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y., really wants to know how the presidential candidates view gun control. Ads featuring him and other mayors from his anti-gun coalition cost $22,203 to place in the Des Moines Register and New Hampshire Union Leader, per the New York Daily News' Kathleen Lucadamo.
The ads ask the presidential candidates to state their views on gun control (and what happens, Mr. Mayor, if they don't answer?).
It looks like the Gore-acle is not only not running -- he's looking less and less likely to endorse, as well. "I think he'll be extremely sensitive about doing anything that could potentially impact his global brand," former Al Gore adviser Chris Lehane tells the New York Sun's Josh Gerstein. But IF he changes his mind, Gerstein writes, "In Mr. Gore's circles, Mr. Obama is seen as most likely to get an endorsement."
If you're planning on spending New Year's in Des Moines, don't miss The Washington Post's piece about campaign-induced family trauma. As always, Howard Wolfson says it well: "It would not be unreasonable for someone to object to the demands of our work."
"I understand the pain and distress that accompanies illness." -- Rudy Giuliani, quoted in The New York Times, during his work for Purdue Pharma.
"I hope you didn't make my ears too big." -- Barack Obama, on a "butter bust" of a gift from Iowa's "Butter Cow Lady."
"Because we want to win." -- Mike Huckabee, on why Republicans call Democrats' health plans "socialized medicine."
"I know Woody Allen once said that eighty percent of life is just showing up, but actually there's more to being proficient in foreign policy than just having been around for a long time, you also have to have good judgment," Obama strategist David Axelrod, after the death of Benazir Bhutto.
For this final sprint to Iowa and New Hampshire, stay up-to-date with an expanded menu of Note offerings -- news, analysis, updates, and blogging -- at abcnews.com/politics. Check back Sunday for a special weekend edition of The Note.
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