DES MOINES, Iowa - The presidential campaign erupted yesterday into a full-scale debate over how best to stabilize Pakistan, as candidates vied in the few days before Thursday's Iowa caucuses to show who was best prepared to lead the antiterror effort.
In the aftermath of the assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, Republican and Democratic candidates spent much of yesterday laying out specific policies they would follow now - or, for Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) and two Republican former governors, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, trying to convince voters they qualify 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 U.N. ambassador, said the United States should give Pakistan "not one penny more" until President Pervez Musharraf "is gone and the rule of law is restored."
Richardson 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 Rodham Clinton offered a multipart plan to restore stability but stopped short of calling for Musharraf's ouster.
"I don't think the Pakistani government at this time under President Musharraf has any credibility at all," Clinton said as she visited Story City.
She called for a "full, independent, international investigation" into Bhutto's killing.
Clinton also called for appointment of a high-level presidential envoy, perhaps a retired general, to work with Musharraf, for Pakistani elections with international monitors "as soon as practicable," and for an effort to "speak directly to the people of Pakistan, particularly the middle class."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D., Del.) urged putting new pressure on Musharraf to hold "fair elections as soon as possible," while Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D., Conn.), a senior Foreign Relations member, urged that Pakistan's Jan. 8 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 senator did not offer any specific blueprint to stabilize Pakistan. At a morning stop in Williamsburg, he said that as president he would 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 him to step down now," former Sen. Fred Thompson (R., Tenn.) told CNN. "This is a serious matter. It's going to be with us for some time, and we need to be deliberate in our approach to it because we have several interests involved."
Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has stressed his support for the Iraq war and his deep background in national security, 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," McCain told his Iowa audience.
Romney stressed his business experience, saying he could put together "a great team" to help manage crises, while Huckabee linked Bhutto's assassination to illegal immigration, saying it highlighted the importance of securing U.S. borders by building a fence along the Mexican border.
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