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.)."