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High Stakes

How Benazir Bhutto's assassination could change Iowa Democrats' calculations.
Des Moines, Iowa

All of a sudden, the politicians' endless loop of television advertisements took on a new and somber significance. During "Good Morning America's" coverage of Bhutto's murder, up popped a Hillary Clinton ad where the message over grave music is that the moment "demands a leader with a steady hand who will weather the storms." No kidding.

Clinton, of course, is hoping that the chaos in Pakistan will fortify her relentless arguments about the importance of experience. Biden's refusal to back away from his insistence that this should be a foreign policy election seems shrewder now than it did last week. Indeed, Biden has been warning not for months but for years that the United States faces its gravest challenge in Pakistan.

The television pictures from Pakistan ratified that Biden was no Chicken Little. He noted on Thursday that he had "twice urged President Musharraf to provide better security for Ms. Bhutto and other political leaders." Biden was suddenly relevant--to television bookers for sure, but also, perhaps, to voters.

Still, Iowa's Democrats work to their own rhythms. Foreign policy differences--indeed, almost all issue differences--have had very little to do with the battle here.

Clinton's argument, he said, is that "she's been around the block," a not quite charitable way of characterizing Clinton's claims that her experience readies her for the coming battles for change that all Democrats devoutly wish to wage.

"The Edwards campaign is 'Storm the Bastille,'" said Axelrod, a colorful description of the former senator's fierce attacks on drug companies, oil companies and all others who would stand in the way of reform. This is appealing to the many Democrats who are in a fighting mood.

Clearly but obliquely referring to Edwards, Obama preached that anger won't cut it, either. "There's no shortage of anger and bluster and bitter partisanship out there," Obama said. "We can change the electoral math that's been all about division and make it about addition."

Democrats have been in this place before. Writing to his friend Newton Minnow about the 1960 nomination battle among John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Adlai Stevenson, the veteran New Deal lawyer James Rowe wondered what all the commotion was about.

But in Iowa this late December, the differences among today's three leading Democrats seem real enough, and all the more so now that the world has brutally forced its way into Iowans' already agonized deliberations.

By E.J. Dionne Jr.