The early expressions of sorrow over the assassination of former Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto on Thursday morning turned into delicate and carefully-worded political posturing between the presidential campaigns on Thursday afternoon.
The suicide attack, which occurred at an election rally in Pakistan, was seized upon by several members of the Republican field to stress national security credentials in times of terrorism. Sen. Barack Obama's campaign, however, used Bhutto's death as a way to draw foreign policy distinctions between himself and his chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton.
"Well, it puts on the table foreign policy judgment, and that's a discussion we welcome," said the Illinois Democrat's chief strategist, David Axelrod. "Barack Obama had the judgment to oppose the war in Iraq, and he warned at the time it would divert us from Afghanistan and al Qaeda, and now we see the effect of that. Al Qaeda's resurgent, they're a powerful force now in Pakistan, they may have been involved - we've been here, so I don't know whether the news has been updated, but there's a suspicion they may have been involved in this. I think his judgment was good. Senator Clinton made a different judgment, so let's have that discussion."
Alexrod went on:
The Clinton campaign was quick to respond:
"This is a time to be focused on the tragedy of the situation, its implications for the U.S. and the world, and to be concerned for the people of Pakistan and the country's stability," Clinton spokesman Phil Singer said in a statement. "No one should be politicizing this situation with baseless allegations."
The back-and-forth between the campaigns underscored the heightened pitch of presidential politics and the various frames through which candidates are now addressing foreign policy and national security issues. Following Bhutto's death, the Obama campaign, sought to make the argument that the assassination was an indictment of President Bush's policies in Iraq, which, they claimed, had distracted the United States' attention from more pressing needs in the war on terror. Senator Clinton, they pointed out had voted for those policies.
"It's hard to judge the political significance at this point," said Robert Gibbs, the communications director for Sen. Barack Obama. "If this ultimately turns back to a discussion of foreign policy, I think we are well-suited...The next commander in chief has to have the judgment to deal with it."
Sen. Clinton's campaign took umbrage with the insinuation that Bhutto's death could be traced to the Senator's vote, but only in private. In public they asserted that, if anything, the terrorist attack proved the need for a more experienced hand in the White House.
"I am profoundly saddened and outraged by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a leader of tremendous political and personal courage. I came to know Mrs. Bhutto over many years, during her tenures as Prime Minister and during her years in exile," Clinton said, "it certainly raises the stakes high for what we expect from our next president. I know from a lifetime of working to make change."
Sen. Evan Bayh, a Clinton surrogate, took the line of reasoning even further, suggesting that in a general election, Republicans would be able to paint candidates other than Clinton as weak on national security. "When there are unfortunate calamities like this, the Republicans [will say], 'See. See what we told you? We have to have someone who's strong to defend America at a time of concern.' Well, Senator Clinton is strong," he said. "And she's experienced. And she's tough enough to defend this country and do it in a way that's true to our values, the civil liberties we cherish, and that's one of the reasons why I'm supporting her."
The Obama campaign declined to comment on Bayh or Singer's statement, pointing the Huffington Post back to Axelrod's initial remarks.