A view of bomb damage of the from Zaventem International Airport after a terrorist attack on March 22, 2016 in Brussels, Belgium.
Presidential candidates weigh in on Brussels attacks
01:11 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Candidates grabbed for political advantage at a crucial moment of an election cycle already dominated by voter anxiety

The candidates' quick reactions reflected the potency of arguments about terrorism in 2016

Washington CNN  — 

This is not the first time a horrific terrorist attack has rocked the 2016 presidential campaign.

The last time terrorists unleashed mass horror in a major European city, it changed the race. As Brussels reeled from the latest assault Tuesday, candidates quickly leaped into action, sensing the new attack may have a similar result.

They were betting that the ISIS-claimed strike may have a similar impact as last November’s rampage in Paris, which emboldened Donald Trump to double-down on his immigration policies, exposed Ben Carson’s foreign policy weakness and underscored Hillary Clinton’s experience on the world stage.

Tuesday’s attacks on Brussels airport and a metro station unfolded hours before voters head to the polls in several Western states and underscored the way the sudden fear of terrorism can transform volatile American political campaigns.

The candidates’ reactions matched the audiences they are courting.

Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, battling over the hawkish Republican base, competed to offer the toughest rhetoric, with the billionaire warning this was “just the beginning” of an “unfolding disaster” to come and again called for the waterboarding of terror suspects.

“We can be nice about it and we can be politically correct about it, but we are being fools, we are being absolute fools. There is something going on,” Trump told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room.”

Cruz said “radical Islam is at war with us” and suggested American Muslims should face more surveillance, an idea Trump quickly backed.

Clinton and Ohio Gov. John Kasich struck more sober poses as they sought to position themselves as potential presidents and to differentiate themselves from Trump.

The former secretary of state called on Europeans to pass tougher laws to fight terrorism and said “steady” hands were needed in the White House Situation Room, scheduling a counter-terrorism address in California for Wednesday.

Kasich, meanwhile, said President Barack Obama should abandon his trip to Cuba and Argentina to come home to organize allies against “enemies of the West.”

And Bernie Sanders, a Vermont senator challenging Clinton for the Democratic party’s nomination, said it was a brutal reminder that the world must destroy ISIS.

Political reverberations from the attacks also pulled the spotlight away from Obama’s historic trip to lay the Cold War to rest in Cuba and threw new scrutiny on his approach to tackling ISIS and terrorism at home and abroad – an examination that has deep implications in the election to find his successor.

The fallout from such attacks – which pose the implicit question of whether a similar outrage could happen on American soil – is not always predictable.

After the Paris attacks in November, the conventional wisdom held that the reverberations would hit Trump – who lacks foreign policy experience and often spurns the nuances of diplomacy – and elevate more seasoned candidates like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

RELATED: Cruz slams Trump in wake of Brussels attack

But with his sharpened political instincts, Trump managed to turn the tumult after Paris and a subsequent ISIS-inspired mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, in December to his advantage.

Trump’s call in December for a “total and complete” ban on the entry of Muslims to the United States until it was possible to figure out what was “going on” in the Islamic world shocked the political establishment and horrified the foreign policy brass. But it played into Trump’s core political persona as a truth teller who swipes away political correctness and struck a chord with a certain section of Republican grass-roots voters who have flocked to the billionaire populist.

In fact, Trump credits the changed political atmosphere for his success at a critical moment in the campaign late last year.

“So we started and something happened called Paris. Paris happened. And Paris was a disaster. There have been many disasters, but – it was Paris,” Trump said last week in Florida after a new string of primary victories.

“And what happened with me was, this whole run took on a whole new meaning,” he continued, “and the meaning was very simple: We need protection in our country. And that’s going to happen. And all of a sudden, the poll numbers shot up.”

Trump was playing on some fertile ground. A CNN/ORC poll in December found that a combined 74% of Americans were “not too satisfied” or “not at all satisfied” about progress in the U.S. campaign against terrorism.

And a CBS News poll conducted in early December found that 54% of Republicans favored Trump’s suggestion for a temporary entry ban on Muslims – suggesting that his intervention was popular among GOP primary voters. More moderate rhetoric by Bush and Rubio failed to catch the moment, and they are no longer in the race.

Cruz, battling to stop Trump short of the 1,237 delegates needed to win the Republican nomination outright, appeared to see an opening to echo the hawkish, sweeping response that helped Trump following the Paris attacks.

The Texas senator said in a statement that Europe was now learning the price of a “toxic mix of migrants who have been infiltrated by terrorists and isolated, radical Muslim neighborhoods.”

Cruz said the U.S. must redouble its efforts to stop a similar scenario at home by halting the flow of refugees from nations with a significant al Qaeda or ISIS presence. “We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.”

Spokeswoman Alice Stewart later clarified Cruz’s comment, saying the senator wanted to ensure an empowered, visible law enforcement presence could “partner with non-radical Americans who want to protect their homes.”

Despite Trump’s success in riding the political wave of the Paris attacks, both Cruz and Kasich now see a chance to portray the former reality TV star as unfit to be president in a dangerous age in the aftermath of the Brussels terrorism.

Cruz immediately seized on Trump’s comments Monday that the U.S. needs to reconsider the level of its involvement with NATO.

“It is striking that the day after Donald Trump called for weakening NATO, withdrawing from NATO, we see Brussels, where NATO is headquartered, the subject of a radical Islamic terror attack,” Cruz told reporters.

He charged, “Donald Trump is wrong that America should withdraw from the world and abandon our allies.”

Kasich’s call for Obama to return home and lead the West also seemed to be playing off Trump’s remark.

However, attacks on Trump’s qualifications to lead the nation at a time of global turmoil have yet to seriously affect his rock-solid support among his faithful Republican supporters.

The commander-in-chief test could prove to be more potent in the general election as a wider span of voters size up a potential president.

Clinton has already begun building a case that Trump is unfit to sit in the Oval Office. And on the face of it, the political uproar following the Brussels attacks should play to the Democratic front-runner’s strengths, given her fluency with foreign policy as a former secretary of state and two-and-a-half decades of experience on the world stage.

After the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, Clinton did prosper in comparison to the more domestically focused Sanders. But liberal primary voters are far less fixated on terrorism and security than those on the Republican side.

Moreover, as the campaign has continued, Sanders has become more adept at addressing national security and has warmed to his theme that his judgment is superior to hers after ill-fated U.S. interventions in Iraq and Libya that she supported.

RELATED: U.S. cities ramp up security in wake of Brussels attacks

Even so, in the wake of the Brussels attacks it is likely the former secretary of state will seek to leverage her experience to bolster her image as a potential general election candidate.

Clinton, appearing on CNN Tuesday, sought to portray a statesmanlike image, saying that Europe needed to toughen its own anti-terrorism laws and warned that the attacks underscore the need for unflappable leadership in the White House.

“We need steady, strong, smart minds and hands in the White House, in the Situation Room, to deal with the problems that we face around the world,” Clinton said.

She declined to respond to Trump’s critique that she was not strong enough and lacked the stamina to be president, however, saying his “constant stream of insults” was “absurd.”

Yet the Brussels attacks could bring political problems for Clinton as they renew focus on Obama’s efforts to eradicate ISIS – a campaign that critics say has stuttered because of his reluctance to contemplate large-scale U.S. campaigns in the Middle East and a tendency to withdraw from the world.

Trump’s uncompromising political message also puts pressure on Clinton to show steel to mainstream voters, even though the Democratic base is wary of hawkishness abroad and her record on foreign policy.

GOP denunciations of Obama’s handling of national security, meanwhile, can complicate Clinton’s path to the presidency

A wider critique of the President’s approach is sure to encompass her role in the first-term decisions of his war cabinet – one reason why she frequently mentions how she counseled Obama to launch the raid to kill Osama bin Laden.

And in a broader sense, political developments that drive Obama’s approval rating down complicate Clinton’s case that the Democrats should keep the White House.

The president this month hit a rare 50% approval rating, according to Gallup, a level that historic data suggests is crucial for candidates from the same party seeking to hold on to the presidency.