Last month, a brazen attack on a Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto completely upended that country’s political process and clearly exposed the risks assumed by political leaders around the world. While campaigning in Pakistan is quite different than stumping for U.S. presidential elections, White House hopefuls nonetheless remain potential targets. Assassins’ bullets have found two U.S. presidential candidates in the last four decades—Robert Kennedy, who was killed in 1968, and George Wallace, who was paralyzed in 1972.
Protecting contenders is no small task. Usually the U.S. Secret Service begins guarding a candidate (AFP) only after he or she has a party’s nomination. This election cycle, however, two candidates are already under the Secret Service’s watch: Hillary Rodham Clinton, who as former first lady already receives protection, and Barack Obama, who requested the Secret Service detail that has accompanied him since May (MSNBC). Protection doesn’t come cheap; the Secret Service anticipates spending $110 million (WashPost) during the 2008 presidential race, two-thirds more than in 2004.
The paradox of campaign security is that it runs against candidates’ instincts to interact with voters as directly as possible. Joseph Funk, a former Secret Service agent, told Newsweek that protecting candidates relies heavily on liaisons with local authorities. But too much security can ruffle the feathers of local communities eager to meet candidates personally. Littleton, New Hampshire, for instance, recently held a hearing (Union Leader) after local police were surprised by requests to provide additional security during a visit by Sen. Obama. Hillary Clinton recently began campaigning door-to-door (BosGlobe), a tactic that leaves a smaller footprint.
Despite increased security, campaign staffs remain vulnerable. In November several members of Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire staff were held hostage (Newsday) by a man with a fake bomb. Then again, security for candidates isn’t guaranteed either; John McCain is skeptical of a security detail’s ability to foil a determined assassin, and has even suggested that as president he would forego Secret Service protection (WashPost).
With homeland security a prominent issue this election cycle, voters may pay closer attention to candidates’ approaches to security. From Mike Huckabee’s partnership with action star Chuck Norris to Joe Biden’s call for a homeland security trust fund, White House hopefuls are putting their toughest face forward. But safeguarding the nation is no small task. The next president will inherit the much maligned Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a bureaucratic behemoth whose early years have been fraught with trouble. The DHS roster includes an unusually large number of political appointees, meaning a new administration could trigger a sea change in personnel (National Journal). All of this, says CFR security expert Stephen Flynn, means the next president will most likely have to “start from scratch.”