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Conversation shifts from condolences to campaign issue

  • Story Highlights
  • Discussion on campaign trail turns to foreign policy, national security, terrorism
  • Candidates trying to portray themselves as the one with the most experience
  • Richardson says he would call on Musharraf to step down, Thompson disagrees
  • McCain challenges Giuliani's foreign policy experience
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(CNN) -- After expressing condolences and outrage over events in Pakistan, presidential candidates turned their discussion toward whose foreign policy credentials were better.

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Hillary Clinton, then U.S. first lady, meets with Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan in 1995.

In a campaign that had been drifting toward economic issues, the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the turmoil in Pakistan could refocus voters on who is best qualified to deal with crises in other parts of the world.

"My theme has been throughout this campaign that I am the one with experience, the knowledge and the judgment. So, perhaps it may serve to enhance those credentials," said Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona.

Locked inside a tough three-way battle for the Democratic nomination in Iowa, Sen. Hillary Clinton has spent a year calling herself the most experienced, most qualified candidate in the field.

She stressed her ties with Bhutto and the tragedy of her death.

"This is one of the most important elections of our lifetime, and it certainly raises the stakes high for what we have to expect from our next president," the New York senator said. Video Watch how the assassination is resonating on the campaign trail »

Sen. Barack Obama's camp, which has spent a year pushing back on criticisms that he lacks experience, insisted they welcome the renewed talks on foreign policy and called attention to Clinton's "yes" vote on the Iraq war.

"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 and Al Qaeda, who may have been players in this event today. So that's a judgment she'll have to defend," said Obama adviser David Axelrod.

The Clinton campaign said the suggestion that her vote caused unrest in Pakistan is baseless, adding that this is a time to focus on the people of Pakistan and not politics.

When asked about Axelrod's remarks late Thursday, Obama told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that, "This is one of those situations where Washington is putting a spin on it. ... He in no way was suggesting Hillary Clinton was somehow directly to blame for this situation." The Illinois senator added that "it's important for us to not look at this in terms of short-term political points scoring." Video Watch the showdown on foreign policy »

But the candidates all reacted, in part because of the gravity of the event, in part because they are just days away from the January 3 Iowa caucuses. Conversation quickly moved from condolences to campaign issues.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani talked terrorism, connecting the attack in Pakistan to the September 11, 2001, attacks.

"America feels a connection because of the attacks that took place here," he said.

McCain, who along with Giuliani scores best on national security, bluntly challenged Giuliani's foreign policy experience. Video Watch how the GOP candidates are reacting »

"He did a great job post-9/11 in handling a post-crisis situation, but I don't know how that provides one the credentials to address national security issues," he said.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said he would call on Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf to step down.

"What is in U.S. interest is for there to be a stable, democratic Pakistan that is fighting terrorists. Right now, we have the worst of all worlds," he said Friday on CNN's "American Morning."

But Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson said calling for Musharraf to step down wouldn't be a good idea.

"I hope that we as candidates out here don't start lobbying these ideas that get plenty of attention but are not very sound," Thompson told CNN.

Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards said he called Musharraf and "urged him to continue this democratization process."

Democratic hopeful Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Bhutto's death was a "genuine tragedy." Video Watch how the Democrats are responding »

"Ladies and gentleman, the stakes are incredibly high. They are incredibly high. If Pakistan falls into complete turmoil, martial law is declared again, you end up with a state that is being run by a dictator; ladies and gentleman that does not bode well for Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, India," he said.

The shift in focus might not play out well for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, whose foreign policy credentials have been under a microscope since he admitted to journalists that he was unaware of a major report on Iran's nuclear weapons program. He appeared to make another minor gaffe Thursday when he seemed to suggest incorrectly that Pakistan was currently under martial law.

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Later Thursday, Huckabee told CNN that "it was not that I was unaware it was suspended, two weeks ago, lifted. ...The point was, would it be reinstated, would it be placed back in? All of the aspects of martial law have not been completely lifted even now. There's still a heavy hand Musharraf has used."

If voters see a high-stakes drama in Pakistan, that could resonate at the polls. Most of the candidates said they didn't want to turn the assassination into a talking point, but it is just a week before the Iowa caucuses, and world events not only change the conversation -- they can change a campaign. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Candy Crowley, Dana Bash and Suzanne Malveaux contributed to this report.

All About Benazir BhuttoPakistanU.S. Presidential Election

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