Clinton, Obama Seize on Killing

The Washington Post's Anne E. Kornblut reports from Denison, Iowa, and assesses what Hillary Rodham Clinton will do in the final days before the Iowa Caucuses. Video by Ed O'Keefe/
By Anne E. Kornblut and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 28, 2007

DES MOINES, Dec. 27 -- News of Benazir Bhutto's assassination came just hours before Sen. Barack Obama delivered what his campaign had billed as the "closing argument" in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination Thursday, forcing his campaign to scramble to incorporate the Pakistani opposition leader into his message of change.

For his chief rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Bhutto's death helped underscore the line she has been driving home for months -- about who is best suited to lead the nation at a time of international peril. In her comments Thursday, Clinton described Bhutto in terms Obama (D-Ill.) could not: as a fellow mother, a pioneering woman following in a man's footsteps, and a longtime peer on the world stage.

The differing reactions of Clinton and Obama to the assassination crystallized the debate between the two just a week before Iowans will decide the first contest in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination.

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.).

"I have known Benazir Bhutto for more than 12 years; she's someone whom I was honored to visit as first lady when she was prime minister," Clinton said at a campaign event in a firehouse in western Iowa. "Certainly on a personal level, for those of us who knew her, who were impressed by her commitment, her dedication, her willingness to pick up the mantle of her father, who was also assassinated, it is a terrible, terrible tragedy," she said.

Three hours after news of Bhutto's slaying broke, Obama delivered a withering rebuke of Clinton's experience, depicting her lengthy political r¿sum¿ as a hindrance to solving big problems, including crises abroad. In an especially charged moment, senior Obama adviser David Axelrod would later tie the killing to the Iraq war -- and Clinton's vote to approve it, which he argued diverted U.S resources from fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, both al-Qaeda hotbeds.

"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," Obama said. "You can't fall in line behind the conventional thinking on issues as profound as war and offer yourself as the leader who is best prepared to chart a new and better course for America."

His remarks came as part of the unveiling of a new stump speech meant to reinforce his change agenda to Iowa voters before the Jan. 3 caucuses. But at every stop Thursday, he started with a few words about the Bhutto assassination. "She was a respected and resilient advocate for the democratic aspirations of the Pakistani people," Obama said. "We join with them in mourning her loss, and stand with them in their quest for democracy and against the terrorists who threaten the common security of the world."

Aides said the senator from Illinois made several Pakistan-related phone calls between events, including to Anne W. Patterson, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, and to Donald Kerr, deputy director of national intelligence. Obama also talked to Mahmud Ali Durrani, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, and urged his country to proceed with democratic elections. But mainly the Bhutto assassination was an undercurrent. No one in Obama's audiences asked him about it, although when a man in Nevada, Iowa, asked about Obama's plan for ending the Iraq war, the senator used it as a segue to lambaste the war for detracting from other regional problems, namely defeating al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"I've been saying for some time that we've got a very big problem" in Pakistan, Obama said. "We were distracted from focusing on them." The phone calls put him behind schedule, and Obama apologized to a Marshalltown audience for showing up half an hour late, explaining that he had to check with U.S. officials involved in the crisis "to make sure that we knew what was going on."

Axelrod, a senior Obama strategist, was more direct, linking the Pakistani crisis to the different positions that Clinton and Obama took on the Iraq war in 2002, when Clinton voted to authorize it in the U.S. Senate, and Obama, then an Illinois state senator, spoke out against it.

"Obama opposed the war in Iraq explicitly because he feared it would divert our attention from al-Qaeda, Pakistan, the whole region," Axelrod said. "It underscores the fact that you have to have a president who understands the world, who is going to analyze these events, and who will chart the right course, counter to the conventional thinking."

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