- The worst terror attack on American soil since 9/11 has become a test of leadership for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
- Clinton largely chose to follow a tried-and-tested political rulebook; Trump, however, tore it to shreds
Washington (CNN)National tragedies can lay bare politicians' souls.
The mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, Sunday exposed the two presumptive major party nominees -- Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton -- to a penetrating examination of their characters and political instincts at a moment of crisis.
The worst terror attack on American soil since 9/11 has become a test of leadership as they vie for the world's most powerful job and a chance to scramble for political advantage in the general election campaign.
There's an accepted playbook for politicians to respond to tragedies wrought by terrorism: It involves not rushing to conclusions but promising to punish the perpetrators. Often a flurry of new plans to combat terrorism is produced. And leaders generally mourn the dead, avoid stigmatizing the entire Muslim community and invoke lofty ideals of national unity rather than partisan politics.
In doing so, they emulate the unifying instincts shown by past commanders in chief at moments of extreme national grief and fear. President George W. Bush, in an iconic display after 9/11, stood on a pile of rubble at Ground Zero to vow vengeance against al Qaeda but also visited a Muslim community center.
In the shocking hours following Sunday's attack on an LGBT nightclub by a gunman apparently inspired by ISIS, Clinton largely chose to follow this tried-and-tested rulebook, with a few departures from the script for her own political benefit.
Trump, however, tore it to shreds, demonstrating once again the extent to which he represents a radical departure from established political norms, thrilling his supporters and alarming his foes.
The real estate developer went out of his way to play politics with the tragedy, with fearsome attacks on Clinton and President Barack Obama within hours of the rampage and a blistering speech Monday that appeared to equate all Muslims with the homegrown radicals behind recent terror attacks.
He presented himself as a candidate of change, urgency -- and the antidote to the status quo exemplified by Clinton. That conventional approach, he charged, allowed terror to fester, and he accused the former secretary of state of wanting to take away Americans' guns and let radical Muslim immigrants slaughter innocents.
And in one of his first tweets after the killing spree Sunday, he called on Obama to resign if he's not willing to use the words "radical Islamic terrorism."
"We need a new leader. We need a new leader fast," Trump said at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire on Monday. "They have put political correctness above common sense, above your safety, and above all else. I refuse to be politically correct."
He added, "The days of deadly ignorance will end, and they will end soon if I'm elected."
If he does win the election, Trump's actions over the last two days suggest that not only will America's posture in the global war on terror change significantly, but the entire mold of how the U.S. president responds to tragedies and national crises could also be shattered.
Clinton has responded the Orlando attack in a more conventional way -- but that, too, represents a political overture, even if a subtler one.
She sought to neutralize the potency of Trump's attacks over her language by telling CNN's "New Day" Monday that she was willing to use the term "radical Islamism."
And the horror unfolded two weeks after she lacerated Trump's temperament, worldview and knowledge, which she said disqualified him from being America's commander in chief.
So it's a natural extension of her campaign strategy to build upon that argument through the aftermath of the latest terror strike on U.S. soil.
On Monday, she took Trump's arguments about increased scrutiny of the Muslim community and his calls for tough new immigration policies and argued they would make America less safe.
"Inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric and threatening to ban the families and friends of Muslim Americans as well as millions of Muslim business people and tourists from entering our country hurts the vast majority of Muslims who love freedom and hate terror," she said.
"So does saying that we have to start special surveillance on our fellow Americans because of their religion," she continued. "That's wrong. And it's also dangerous. It plays right into the terrorists' hands."
Trump, however, has been undeterred by this argument.
He's instead provided tough talk about Muslims and terrorists, speaking with declarative directness about crushing terrorism in a way some voters might find more satisfying than the cliches uttered by political leaders ever since the September 11 attacks.
Indeed, tough talk on terror is a cause behind which many Republicans, even those who are skeptical of Trump, can unite and offers at least the prospect of Obama's rising approval numbers, which are currently above 50% and thereforehelpful to Clinton.
Trump offered a frank admission after ISIS-inspired massacres in France and San Bernardino, California, last year that acts of terrorism and his strong response help his poll numbers.
But he also risks alienating voters not enamored of sweeping statements that can be untruthful.
He seemed to suggest Monday that every Muslim immigrant was potentially a savage terrorist. He said the perpetrator of the Orlando attacks was an Afghan, even though he was an American born in New York. And he made unsubstantiated claims that Clinton is looking to confiscate all Americans' guns and wants to let loose Islamic terrorists.
Voters sizing up Trump as a potential president might also note that he tends to tear open political divides rather than to build bridges at a time of crisis. And in the aftermath of the tragedy, Trump appeared to be preoccupied that the media was not treating him fairly, according to one of his Facebook posts in which he explained that he was rescinding the press credentials of The Washington Post.
Everything Clinton has done since the attack seems to have had the ulterior motive of setting up an implied contrast with Trump to exploit this possible vulnerability.
Where Trump was impulsive in his brash Twitter response to the attack, Clinton was moderate. Her initial tweet and statements avoided overt politicization of the tragedy and she left it to her communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, to fire back at Trump in a volley that quickly turned the tragedy into a political war of words.
Clinton, like her rival, was framed by American flags for her speech responding to the massacre, but in comparison, she spoke deliberately and unveiled a detailed plan to combat the evolving scourge of homegrown terrorism.
Though she chose not to mention Trump by name, her speech was a clear repudiation of the policies the Republican espoused a few hours later.
"The Orlando terrorist may be dead, but the virus that poisoned his mind remains very much alive. And we must attack it with clear eyes, steady hands, unwavering determination and pride in our country and our values," Clinton said.
While she proposed an effort to root out terrorism in the Middle East and at home, she stressed, unlike Trump, that Muslims must be part of the process.
She also didn't hesitate to jump into the fray on the key Democratic issue of gun control, calling for more efforts by the U.S. government to stop "weapons of war" from getting into the hands of radicalized Americans.
And she reached out to a core political support base -- the LGBT community -- expressing empathy for the attack on a place where those who died had imagined they were safe and among friends who understood them.
Overall, Clinton sought to portray herself as the kind of sober, unifying figure dedicated to considered action and meticulous planning that many Americans expect to see in their president.
Yet the risk for her, in part, is being seen as a figure of continuity at a time when many Americans are becoming increasingly fearful for their security and could begin to blame the Obama administration for the new instances of terror on its watch.
Obama, for all his rhetorical gifts, has come under criticism in recent months for not adequately communicating with an American public reeling from multiple attacks on the West.
His analytical, reserved, no-drama style could hardly be more different than that of the pyrotechnical Trump -- one reason why the Republican presumptive nominee has drawn millions of supporters.
Clinton, while more hawkish in her rhetoric than Obama, would be a far more conventional national security president than Trump, partly owing to experience on the international stage as a former first lady and secretary of state.
So far it's not clear if the wider general electorate will prefer the outspoken billionaire's brand of anti-terror politics or gravitate to Clinton's more sober persona.
But each candidate is betting in the wake of the worst mass shooting on U.S. soil that they have best responded to the national mood.