Benazir Bhutto is assassinated and chaos engulfs Pakistan; it could affect U.S. race.

Benazir Bhutto is assassinated and chaos engulfs Pakistan; it could affect U.S. race.

Benazir Bhutto is assassinated and chaos engulfs Pakistan; it could affect U.S. race.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Dec. 28 2007 6:05 AM

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

All the papers lead with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, which threw Pakistan into chaos less than two weeks before scheduled parliamentary elections. Bhutto, Pakistan's two-time prime minister, had narrowly escaped a previous assassination attempt when she returned to Pakistan two months ago after eight years of self-imposed exile. Leaving a campaign rally in the city of Rawalpindi, Bhutto was waving to the crowds from the sunroof of a car when she was shot. Moments later, a suicide bomber detonated explosives and killed at least 20 people. The Washington Postgets an account from an aide that had been  sitting next to Bhutto and reports there were "three to five gunshots" and then the former prime minister "sank back into her seat … as blood poured from her wounds and pooled in the back seat, she lost consciousness." The Los Angeles Timesmakes clear that "the attack occurred with devastating speed," and no one is sure exactly what happened. Some believe the shooter and the bomber were the same person, while others said "there were two assailants." The New York Timessays some witnesses reported seeing a sniper firing from a nearby building.

It's difficult to overstate the effect that Bhutto's assassination will have inside Pakistan. USA Todaypoints out that "the best hope of Pakistan becoming a stable democracy anytime soon may have died with Benazir Bhutto" as there is little chance of a "smooth transition" from military dictatorship to democracy. For its part, the Wall Street Journal puts it simply: "the world's most unstable nuclear-armed nation is plunging deeper into crisis." The LAT reports that overnight rioting killed at least nine people as President Pervez Musharraf vainly called on Pakistanis to remain calm.

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Musharraf condemned the assassination and blamed Islamic extremists. The NYT notes that U.S. officials issued bulletins that mentioned Islamic Web sites were reporting that al-Qaida was claiming responsibility, but no one was ready to confirm the claims. Bhutto's supporters were quick to point the finger at Musharraf, who many say never provided enough security to the former prime minister. Bhutto had previously said she suspected some members of Musharraf's governments were conspiring to kill her. The LAT has the most details of the rally that preceded her assassination and notes that supporters "shouted out a chant that seemed chilling in retrospect: 'Bhutto is alive!' " as a reference to her father, who had been killed a few miles away in 1979. In separate stories inside, the WP and LAT talk to intelligence officials who say al-Qaida is likely to be ultimately responsible but there was no shortage of groups and people who wanted her dead and had the means to kill her.

One of the big questions now is whether the parliamentary elections will go on as scheduled on Jan. 8. Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister, announced that his party would boycott the elections and many analysts agreed it would be difficult for the voting to proceed. Slate contributor Nicholas Schmidle says Musharraf is stuck in a Catch-22, where he'll be criticized for whichever decision he takes on the elections. A U.S. State Department official said they should go on as scheduled, but if there's one thing that is clear after the assassination, it's that, as the NYT emphasizes, the United States holds less influence over the future of Pakistan than ever before. The Bush administration had put all its cards on Bhutto and had been instrumental in her return to Pakistan and working out a fragile alliance between Bhutto and Musharraf.

The WP fronts a look at the U.S. role in all this deal-making and notes that Bhutto didn't make up her mind to return until after she got a phone call from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Bhutto, who had been forced from power because of corruption charges, was seen as the best hope for stability and now the Bush administration has to figure out how to proceed. There's clearly nothing but bad options and the WSJ warns that too much meddling could fuel more anti-U.S. sentiments. The NYT gets word that American embassy officials reached out to members of Sharif's party, who was never a favorite because of perceived ties to Islamic militants. But options are running out. The LAT points out this might be the final death blow to Musharraf and some believe the ensuing violence could "prove too much even for the Pakistani army." USAT says there might be hope that Musharraf could use the opportunity to reach out to political enemies (in the Post's op-ed page, Ahmed Rashid writes that he must do that if elections are canceled). The NYT makes clear that the State Department is still hoping that someone else can become leader of Bhutto's party. But in Pakistan parties really aren't as important as strong leaders and it'd be difficult for someone else to take Bhutto's role.

Although Bhutto predicted her death many times, she never molded anyone to succeed her and she named herself "chairperson for life." Her amazing biography was full of these types of contradictions (a modern woman with degrees from Harvard and Oxford who accepted an arranged marriage, for example). The NYT's John Burns writes a must-read obituary that shines a particularly revealing light on "the self-styled 'daughter of Pakistan.' " For a more personal look inside Bhutto's way of thinking, read the weeklong "Diary" that she wrote for Slate in 1997.

But back to the here and now, the presidential campaigns didn't take long to react to Bhutto's assassination, and everyone says developments out of Pakistan could have a strong impact on the race. The Post off-leads a look at the reactions from Democrats and points out Sen. Hillary Clinton's aides think this could mark a turning point, since it helps the former first lady emphasize the importance of her experience in an unpredictable world. Sen. Barack Obama, meanwhile, said that "we were distracted" from Pakistan because of Iraq. Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, went a bit further and tied Clinton's support of the Iraq war with the current crisis in Pakistan.

But a new poll on Page One of the LAT today suggests that, as Slate's John Dickerson noted yesterday, Clinton and Sen. John McCain have the most to gain from Bhutto's assassination because they're seen as more prepared to deal with national security and foreign affairs. Regardless, the poll shows Obama and Clinton in a statistical tie in New Hampshire. In Iowa, it's a three-way race with John Edwards joining the two senators in a statistical tie, except the paper does note that when only those who are very likely to caucus are taken into account, the former first lady has more of a lead. On the GOP side, Huckabee has a commanding lead in Iowa, but is far behind in New Hampshire, where Mitt Romney is on top, followed by McCain.

As the caucuses get closer, voters in Iowa can't sit down to watch television without facing a barrage of ads from all sides, but especially from Democrats, who have been breaking all sorts of records, says the NYT. The Democratic candidates have spent a combined total of $23.7 million on ads in Iowa this year. In 2004, Democrats broke a record when they spent $9.1 million. If the turnout is as predicted, Democrats could end up spending $140 to $150 on advertisements per caucusgoer, while the figure for the Republicans would be somewhere around $95 to $105. Talk about retail politics.

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.