DES MOINES, Iowa — Terrorism — and who's best equipped to deal with it — came roaring back as the top presidential-campaign issue Thursday as news spread that Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated one week before Iowans begin the voting for a new commander in chief.
Almost instantly, candidates who've struggled in recent months to convince voters that worldly experience matters had fresh urgency for tough talk on terrorism.
Democratic New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who's been emphasizing her depth of experience, pounded home her message Thursday with new vigor and a personal touch.
"I have known Benazir Bhutto for more than 12 years," the former first lady told a crowd of a few hundred at a fire station in Denison, a meatpacking town where Pakistan usually isn't discussed much.
Clinton spoke of how she'd visited the then-prime minister in the 1990s, and how "we stayed in touch over the years, met on several occasions, always talked about her commitment to bringing democracy back to Pakistan."
On the Republican side, Thursday's events underscored the essential message of Arizona Sen. John McCain that it's a tough world and he knows how to deal with it. He recognized the significance of the Pakistan tragedy at his first Iowa event, a town hall meeting at an Elks Club here.
McCain dispensed with his usual warm-up jokes, giving the standing-room-only crowd a somber, six-minute extemporaneous speech on Bhutto's assassination, its potential geopolitical impact and what he'd do as president to deal with "a very tense and unsteady time in Pakistan."
"I know the players, I know the individuals and I know the best way to address the situation," McCain said.
Beth Stelle Jones, a preschool teacher from Des Moines, was impressed with McCain's grasp of the world's complexity.
"How amazing that we were here at this time to hear that," she said. "Experience is (paramount) in my opinion. I know it's beating a dead horse to say that, but it's true."
Other candidates quickly picked up the beat.
A few miles west, in Urbandale, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson spoke about the assassination for about 15 minutes without notes. He had no pat answers; he only asked the crowd to consider the possibilities, and how a man of his experience at least could understand them.
That was the message that Keith Page, a Des Moines retiree, wanted to hear. "This helps bring all this into a strange focus," he said.
In New Hampshire, Republican former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said the murder underscored the need for Western nations to support moderate Muslims and oppose violent extremism. He rejected the suggestion that McCain or Republican former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani would be better equipped to deal with terrorism as president because of their experience.
"If the answer for leading the country is someone who has a lot of foreign policy experience, we can just go down to the State Department and pick up any of the tens of thousands of people who spent all their life in foreign policy. That's not what a nation needs in a president," he said.
Giuliani, who's made his city's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks the centerpiece of his campaign, was in Florida on Thursday.
"Her death is a reminder that terrorism anywhere — whether in New York, London, Tel Aviv or Rawalpindi — is an enemy of freedom," he said in a statement. "We must redouble our efforts to win the terrorists' war on us."
Some Democrats, notably those who've spent the year peddling their bulky resumes, joined Clinton on Thursday in reminding voters how long they've been working on these issues.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, scheduled what aides called a "major speech" about Pakistan and the war on terrorism Friday in Des Moines.
Thursday, Richardson said President Bush should pressure Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf — who took power in a coup in 1999 — to quit, and if he won't, the U.S. should cut off military help to the government.
Not all candidates, though, were as eager to adjust their pitches, especially those whose foreign-policy credentials are thin.
The reduction in violence in Iraq and elsewhere abroad in recent months had brought domestic issues to the fore in the campaign, and candidates with virtually no international experience, notably Democratic Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and Republican former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, have moved up.
On Thursday, Huckabee issued a statement calling the assassination "devastating news for the people of Pakistan, and my prayers go out to them."
Obama stuck to his script, a message of change and hope, as he wowed a crowd of about 400 at downtown Des Moines' Scottish Rite Masonic Center.
He mentioned the assassination only briefly at the start of his 30-minute stump speech. "We have to make sure that we are clear as Americans that we stand for democracy," Obama said, "and that we will be steadfast in our desire to end the types of terrorist attacks that have blighted not just Pakistan but the rest of the of the world."
The audience didn't seem to mind the lack of discussion about Pakistan.
"We have a lot of good candidates, and I like Obama because he has the best chance of bringing everyone to the table," said Dr. Cheryl Child of Des Moines.
"In the end, it's just a gut feeling," said Shanon Lindstrom, a homemaker. "There are many parts to how I make up my mind."
Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat, recalled meeting Bhutto and noted late Thursday: "I spoke to President Musharraf a few minutes ago and I urged him to continue the democratization process because of how important it is to the Pakistani people and how important it is to his country."
Another Democratic challenger, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden of Delaware, reminded voters of his own credentials on the subject.
"Senator Biden has long warned that Pakistan is one of the most complex countries we deal with, and that its stability and America's security are linked," a statement from his office said. It reminded that Biden spoke to a New Hampshire audience Nov. 8 on "A New Approach to Pakistan."
In Denison, Clinton's pitch didn't seem to move a lot of voters. Doug Rohde, a bed and breakfast owner, said that while Obama lacked necessary experience, Clinton didn't seem to have the tools needed to be a conciliatory figure.
The assassination, he said, "just reinforces who I'd vote for. I'm gravitating toward the candidates who are most inclined toward reconciliation in that part of the world," and that probably means Richardson, he said.
Even when the U.S. response to terrorism was a crucial part of their decision processes, voters found it hard to single out specific candidates as the best to handle such problems.
Rob Gray, a West Des Moines doctoral student, noted that even a governor can qualify as a foreign policy leader.
"What's important is who has shown leadership in the past," Gray said. "Governors deal with floods and all kinds of disasters. What matters is how you handled unexpected situations."
Lee Sellers, a Clive lawyer, said that while terrorism factored into his voting equation, it wasn't as simple as who could best lead.
"It depends how you define experience," he said. "Does it mean being knowledgeable? Does it mean an ability to negotiate? There are a lot of things that are relevant."
(Matt Stearns in Iowa and William Douglas in New Hampshire contributed to this article.)