Presidential candidates invoke crisis to show off their credentials

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Indy Politics

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto became a major factor in the US presidential race yesterday, seized upon by candidates John McCain and Rudi Giuliani on the Republican side, and Hillary Clinton among Democrats, who have made national security and foreign affairs expertise a cornerstone of their campaigns.

The news from Pakistan arrived exactly a week before the critical Iowa caucuses, which kick off the primary season. Within hours it had provoked a fresh battle of words between Ms Clinton and Barack Obama, her main rival for the Democratic nomination, and set Republican contenders scrambling to tout their national security credentials.

Mr Giuliani, whose campaign had been faltering, reminded voters of his most powerful campaign asset, his leadership as mayor of New York after the September 2001 terrorist attacks while Mr McCain, long versed in foreign policy issues and a strong supporter of the Iraq war, insisted he was "the only one with the knowledge and experience" to deal with such events.

Mr McCain's fortunes, after a long slump, are the rise again, and the Arizona senator took a swipe at arch rival Mitt Romney, who he is hoping to defeat in the New Hampshire primary on 8 January. "He [Mr Romney] doesn't have any experience there. I don't know how he would handle it, to tell you the truth."

By contrast, the new focus on foreign policy could hurt Mike Huckabee, the surprise of the campaign thus far. The former governor of Arkansas and religious conservative has taken a narrow lead over Mr Romney in Iowa but now will face searching questions on foreign policy a field about which even he admits he knows little.

But the most barbed exchanges were between Ms Clinton and Mr Obama, running neck-and-neck in both Iowa and New Hampshire. With a less violent Iraq moving off the front pages, domestic issues such as the economy, the sub-prime mortgage crisis and health care have replaced terrorism and national security as voters' main concerns. In the process, the momentum has shifted to Mr Obama.

But the Clinton camp believes the Bhutto assassination could be a potential turning point in her race with Mr Obama and the third-placed John Edwards. "I knew Benazir Bhutto for more than 12 years," Ms Clinton told a rally at a fire station in Iowa. Her murder was "a stark reminder" of how important it was for Iowans to vote.

The Obama campaign hit back by linking the assassination to Iraq, pointing out Ms Clinton voted to authorise the war in 2002, thus helping divert US attention from the al-Qa'ida threat in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.