DES MOINES, Iowa -- The presidential campaign erupted yesterday into a full-blown debate over how best to stabilize Pakistan as candidates vied in the few days before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses to show who was best prepared to lead the war on terrorism.
Following Thursday's assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, Republican and Democratic presidential candidates spent much of yesterday laying out specific policies they'd follow now - or, for Democratic Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and two former Republican governors, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, trying to persuade voters that they're qualified to play in that league.
The rivals with thicker foreign-policy resumes offered detailed blueprints of how they would deal with Pakistan. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former United Nations ambassador, struck first, telling a Des Moines audience that the United States should give Pakistan "not one penny more until [President Pervez] Musharraf is gone and the rule of law is restored."
He told 125 supporters at the Des Moines Botanical Garden that "some of my Democratic opponents have misplaced faith in Musharraf. Like the Bush administration, they cling to a misguided notion that Musharraf can be trusted as an ally to fight terrorism or change his despotic ways."
Most Democratic candidates wouldn't go that far; New York Sen. Hillary Clinton offered a multi-part plan to restore stability but stopped short of calling for Musharraf's ouster.
She called for a "full, independent, international investigation" of the Bhutto killing; the appointment of a high-level presidential envoy, perhaps a retired general, to work with Musharraf; Pakistani elections with international monitors "as soon as practicable"; and an effort to "speak directly to the people of Pakistan, particularly the middle class."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware urged putting new pressure on Musharraf to hold "fair elections as soon as possible," while Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, a senior Foreign Relations member, urged that Pakistan's elections be postponed.
The fight was not just over ideas - it was over foreign policy pedigree, too. Dodd took aim at Clinton, questioning her experience.
"It isn't enough to be sitting on the sidelines, watching your husband deal with these problems over the years," Dodd said. And he termed Richardson's call for Musharraf to resign "a dangerous idea. Tell me who's going to be controlling the keys to the nuclear weapons in Pakistan."
Also throwing jabs was Obama - though the third-year U.S. senator did not offer any specific blueprint to stabilize Pakistan. At a morning stop in Williamsburg, he said that as president he'd reassess U.S. policy toward Pakistan and push for democratic elections.
The Republican debate had a different tone. Most candidates were more willing to tolerate, and in some cases even praise, Musharraf, while they painted Democrats as unsteady and weak.
"I don't think it would be a good idea to call for [Musharraf] to step down now," former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson told CNN yesterday. "I hope that we as candidates out here don't start lobbing these ideas that get plenty of attention but are not very sound. This is a serious matter. It's going to be with us for some time."
Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has stressed his background in national security throughout his campaign, also focused on Pakistan.
"You're going to hear a lot of criticism about Musharraf, that he hasn't done everything we wanted him to do, but he did agree to step down as head of the military, and he did get the elections," the senator told his Iowa audience.
Romney stressed his experience as a business executive - saying he could put together "a great team" to help manage crises - while Huckabee linked the assassination to illegal immigration, saying it highlighted the importance of securing the nation's borders by building a fence along the Mexican border.
Huckabee said that 660 Pakistanis have entered the country illegally because of porous borders, and called for monitoring the movement of Pakistanis into the United States. He said the 660 figure came from a Homeland Security briefing.
"A lot of Americans sitting in Pella, Iowa, maybe look halfway around the world and say, 'How does that affect me?'" Huckabee told reporters after meeting with an overflow crowd at a Pizza Ranch in Pella.