Iowa Voters Weigh Bhutto Assassination, Foreign Policy

The Iowa caucuses are less than a week away. As voters in the state prepare to be the first in the country to cast ballots for presidential party nominations, the political climate in the state intensifies. Rekha Basu and Carole Hunter of the Des Moines Register talk about how Benazir Bhutto's assassination has affected the tone of the campaign.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later, a new Web site that marries the ancient art of matchmaking with modern technology. It's our weekly Faith Matters conversation.

But first, on a day when Pakistanis are mourning the assassination of one of their national leaders, Americans are beginning the process of selecting their chief executive. We're less than a week away from the Iowa caucuses where the first votes of the year will be cast in the presidential race.

For the latest information and analysis from Iowa, we turn to Rekha Basu, a columnist for the Des Moines Register. And Carol Hunter, the Register's opinion page editor. The paper formally endorsed Senator Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination and John McCain for the Republican nomination. And they both join us from member station WOI Des Moines bureau.

Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

CAROL HUNTER: Thank you.

REKHA BASU: Hello, Michel.

MARTIN: Carol Hunter, if I could start with you. I wanted to ask how the assassination of Benazir Bhutto is shifting the conversation out there. I know that all the candidates pretty much have had some comment, but is it shifting the tone of the race?

HUNTER: Well, it has been a serious race here in Iowa, and I think yesterday's event certainly made the tone even more serious. Something like this becomes a crucible for which people judge candidates. And I think the candidates are very much aware of that.

MARTIN: Rekha, what do you think?

BASU: Yeah. I think actually it's interesting. I mean, it sort of reinforces the tones that each of the candidates has been trying to play up in their campaigns. It gives them an opportunity, for example, on the Republican side, to highlight the war on terror and who would be the most effective at that. And on the Democratic side, to highlight each of their commitments to democracy and their foreign policy experiences, and try to capitalize on the moment in that regard.

Yesterday, for example, Senator Joe Biden had a press conference in Des Moines, responding to the death of Benazir Bhutto, and talking about the need for a thorough investigation and so on. And he said, you know, I would have had this press conference regardless of whether I was running for president because I'm the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. However, it took on a great deal more importance because it's in the context now of presidential campaign and everybody is looking to see who has the most experience, the most knowledge about the region.

MARTIN: On the Democratic side, I think you hear this theme emerge where it comes down to change versus experience. And I want to play a short clip from an Obama advisor David Axelrod who was talking about the situation in Pakistan. And this is what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF OBAMA STRATEGIST DAVID AXELROD)

DAVID AXELROD: I think if the people need to judge what where these candidates were and what they've said and what they've done on these issues, I mean she was a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, which we would submit is one of the reasons why we were diverted from Afghanistan, Pakistan, al-Qaida - who may have been players in this event today. So that's a judgment she'll have to defend.

MARTIN: Carol Hunter, needless to say the Clinton campaign was not too pleased by that, and I wanted to ask how you think that Iowans are reacting to a comment like that. I know it had a big play on cable news yesterday. The Clinton response being that this is kind of playing politics too soon. It's unseemly. But do you think that's being perceived that way there?

HUNTER: I don't know that it's being perceived as unseemly, but I do think it sharpens a difference between the two of the three leading Democratic candidates between Clinton and Obama. Clinton has hammered away at the word experience, saying that she is the one who's been tested through time. Obama's camp, of course, comes back at her with a comment like Mr. Axelrod's, that experience is one thing but you also have to have judgment. And they poke at her judgment in certain situations, certainly her vote for authorizing the war in Iraq, also, the recent vote on Iran and the terrorist guards.

MARTIN: Rekha, what do you think?

BASU: You know, I think it does point, that Iowans - I don't want to use the word jaded because it sounds sort of cynical, but I think that Iowans have pretty much heard every kind of attack during the past year in this campaign. And it's running off of a lot of people's backs. I know that some people feel that some of this is really over the top, but pretty much every campaign seems to be engaging in it or has engaged in it at some point. So I don't think that's really going to sharply define how people caucus on caucus night.

MARTIN: Do you see any substantive differences on the Republican side emerging? I think a lot of the focus has been on the Democratic side because there's been this sort of sharp - sort of contrast to the Clinton-Obama dynamic and then sort of John Edwards trying to kind of come up sort of the rear. But do you see any substantive difference emerging (unintelligible)...

BASU: Do you mean in relation to foreign policy?

MARTIN: Exactly.

BASU: In general?

MARTIN: In relation to foreign policy, particularly, since all of the Republicans, with the exception of Ron Paul, have been supporters - strong supporters - of the present policy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

HUNTER: Well, I do think John McCain made several strong statements yesterday about his foreign policy experience. And when you look at the leaders in the race in Iowa - Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee - both of them are very untested and very inexperienced in foreign policy. So certainly, Mr. McCain will make that difference. I don't know that it will make a lot of difference. Romney and Huckabee are so far out front, according to the latest polls.

But it does show both on the Democratic side and the Republican side, there is a great deal of fluidity. All of the polls show that there remains a large bloc of undecided voters and also people who aren't very committed to their initial decisions. So this may have some changes.

MARTIN: That was what I was going to ask you, Carol. Does late-breaking news affect caucus voters?

HUNTER: It can. I don't think it would make a great deal of difference in the percentages, but these races are so close that a couple of percentages could make a difference.

BASU: Yeah. I would just jump in here, Michel, and say that it is extraordinary. I've been in Iowa for 16 years now and so I've been through a number of these caucus cycles. I have never seen people so undecided so late into the game. It is very volatile. And I think it's - at least on the Democratic side - and I think people who want a Democrat elected are interested in the same basic things: an end to the war, a better health care policy, and end to terrorism, of course, you know, education.

But they are just trying to figure out which of these candidates, some with enormous star power and very articulate, would be the best one to bring it. So there's not a huge difference in ideology or philosophy here. It's just the question of which one can do it. And people are really torn. I've seen people quite traumaticized. I mean, I've gotten just plaintive voicemails on my phone mail saying please I'm 67 years old. I've always gone to caucuses. I don't know what to do to. This one says this on that, and the other one is that on that. I spoke to one woman who had three or four different lawn signs, and she puts them out alternately for different candidates because she just can't make up her mind.

MARTIN: Well, you know, this sounds like a happy dilemma to have. I mean, the way that you've got a lot of candidates that you like but you're saying there are people who aren't experience it that way. They're experience it as kind of traumatic.

BASU: No, it isn't. I mean - well, I mean, of course, you know, as it gets closer I think what people are experiencing in Iowa is a tremendous sense of personal responsibility to get it right. And a lot of people have taken advantage of every opportunity to meet the candidates, to go and hear them on the stump, to read their policy statements. But still they're torn. It is absolutely a good dilemma to have. But I think it reflects how seriously Iowans take this whole process and their unique role in it.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. From WOI in Des Moines, Iowa, we have Carol Hunter, editorial page editor and Rekha Basus, opinion page columnist with the Des Moines Register.

So speaking of getting it right, Carol Hunter, the Des Moines Register endorsed Senator Hillary Clinton. Can you tell folks who aren't aware of the process, just a little bit about how you all came to that decision?

HUNTER: I was actually a very lengthy process. It started about nine months ago when we first started interviewing candidates. We interviewed, altogether, 18 presidential candidates this time around. And eight of those we had back in for second interviews. We read books. We looked at policy papers. We analyzed issues. It is a very impressive field of candidates for different reasons, and I think our own board experienced some of the trauma that Rekha described, in that we went back and forth and back and forth on which candidates to endorse.

MARTIN: Now, Rekha, as a columnist, you arrived at a different conclusion getting aboard. That...

BASU: I did indeed.

MARTIN: That must make for some interesting water cooler conversation, but where did we come out?

BASU: Actually. I have to say, you know, people are giving me kudos for being so courageous for taking a different stand. My newspaper totally encouraged me to take whatever position I wanted to even if that differed so I can't give myself too much credit. But I did - I sat through the same editorial board meetings with the same candidates.

And I ultimately decided that what I think Democrats are really looking for this time is change, not just in tone, but, you know, and I don't mean to get into the sort of cult of personality here, but I think that Barack Obama really does, in the end, represent a significant transformation in how the U.S. would be perceived and in the whole course of politics, you know, because of his youth, because of his multicultural background, his international background.

Whereas Hillary Clinton, for whom I have enormous respect, I think represents sort of the institution - the Democratic Party institution - and a certain degree of, you know, sort of conformity with what we have seen before. And I guess in the general election, my sense was that people would prefer to vote for change. I also think Hillary Clinton carries quite a lot of baggage.

MARTIN: Here's a line from your column I wanted to point out: now is also the time to signal to the world that America is not a monolithic dinosaur, but dynamic and evolving, harnessing its diversity to enhance its strength.

Do you really think the rest of the world doesn't know that?

BASU: Oh, I absolutely think the rest of the world doesn't know that. I think the Iraq war has soured many, many countries in their relationships and attitudes towards the U.S. And I think there's a sense that we are arrogant, that we hold ourselves above the rest of the world. That those who have voted in support of the Iraq war are somehow tainted and associated with the Bush administration establishment, fairly or unfairly.

And I think having someone - and I can just tell you from the responses I've gotten, including from international people - foreigners living in the United States - the notion that a Barack Obama, someone who had a father who was Kenyan, who lived in Indonesia, who has this global experience could become president is extremely exciting.

MARTIN: Okay. Carol Hunter, just very briefly, last question to you, your paper also endorsed Senator John McCain on the Republican side. As you pointed out - it's a Mitt Romney-Mike Huckabee battle there in Iowa. Do you feel in any way that you all missed the party?

HUNTER: Well, in some ways, our editorial board does not align very often with positions taken by the Republican Party. We weighed heavily experience and confidence, ability to work across the aisle. We think that the public is ready for a government that works and that gets things done. That will tackle issues such as immigration and campaign finance reform as John McCain has shown willingness to do.

MARTIN: All right. Well, Carol Hunter, opinion page editor of the Des Moines Register, Rekha Basu, a Register columnist, both joined us from Iowa. Thank you both so much for speaking with us and stay warm.

BASU: Thank you, Michel.

HUNTER: Thank you, Michel.

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