The first formal voting on U.S. presidential candidates follows an unusually long campaigning period that featured an extraordinary number of foreign policy concerns. And just as the focus was shifting to domestic issues and matters of candidates’ personal characteristics (Newsweek), the death of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto compelled contenders to refocus on U.S. foreign policy. Whether Iowa caucus-goers on January 3 placed high value on the candidates’ stances on U.S.-Pakistan policy, or any other foreign policy issue, remains unclear. The victory of Democrat Barak Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee may suggest a return to pocketbook issues (MSNBC) in U.S. politics. Still, as this CFR.org Issue Tracker on Pakistan suggests, candidates took pains to prove who has the most relevant foreign policy experience for dealing with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other fronts in the Bush administration’s “war on terror.”
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) raised Pakistan’s crisis as a talking point (Quad-City Times) in campaign events in Iowa and New Hampshire, highlighting his experience in the region and acquaintance with the major figures there. “I've been to Waziristan,” he told a New Hampshire crowd recently (AP). “I know how to handle this situation, and that’s because I have the experience and the knowledge, the background and judgment.”
Sen. Hillary Clinton comments on Pakistan in a similar vein, stressing her personal relationship with Bhutto. Still, twice last week, Clinton stumbled when she referred inaccurately to President Pervez Musharraf as a candidate in the upcoming Pakistani elections. One of her Democratic opponents, Joe Biden (D-DE), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, seized on the error as proof that Clinton is one of “a number of candidates who are well-intended, but don’t even understand Pakistan” (BosGlobe). Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee seemed to raise similar concerns about his grasp of Pakistani issues, referring erroneously (CNN) to ongoing martial law there. Huckabee also attempted to make Bhutto’s assassination relevant to Iowans by warning that Pakistani illegal immigration could pose a threat to the United States (MSNBC), a remark which drew scoffs from those familiar with the demographics of illegal immigrants.
Of all the issues which intersect with foreign policy, immigration has dominated the agenda for Republican candidates, the Washington Post’s Jonathan Weisman writes. Mitt Romney’s campaign, disappointed at its second place finish in Iowa, kept up its attack on rivals viewed as soft on illegal immigrants, issuing a recent statement criticizing Huckabee for supporting “in-state tuition for illegals.” But in the last days before the caucuses, leading Republicans focused primarily on their experience or personal values, setting aside the immigration battles (WashPost), if only temporarily.
Immigration remained the dominant issue for Republican Iowa caucus-goers, according to a Des Moines Register poll released before the vote, which identifies Iraq, terrorism, and religious values as the other top concerns on the GOP side. The poll shows Iraq as the main issue for Iowa Democrats, even as leading Democratic candidates have focused away from Iraq in recent months.
The immediate decisions by Biden and another Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, to drop out of the race, led analysts to question whether Iraq or other international issues carry as much weight as was once assumed. New Hampshire may force yet another reevaluaton. But, for now, as one Iowan explained to the Miami Herald this week, ''I want a complete turnaround over the next eight years, so I see domestic policy as important as foreign policy.''