- The Washington Times - Monday, December 31, 2007

The world became a more dangerous place this week with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. The country, a linchpin in the war on terrorism, is wracked with violence, endangering not just Pakistanis but all of us.

If Islamic fundamentalists are able to exploit the current chaos and gain control of the government — an unspeakable but not inconceivable possibility — we will face a nuclear-armed enemy rather than one that relies on suicide belts and roadside bombs. All this should focus voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, who are about to make their choice for Democratic and Republican presidential nominees.

The winners in these respective races are not guaranteed to emerge as victors when their parties finally nominate candidates next summer, but they get a huge leg up, making it easier to raise money and garner media attention. Voters in these states, therefore, bear a heavy responsibility to pick wisely.

I’ll leave it to other pundits to advise Democrats on their choice, but here’s my take on the Republican race. Many of the Republicans, whatever else their appeal, simply don’t have the experience to lead America during wartime. Mitt Romney doesn’t have the gravitas needed; he’s too eager to please, willing to shape his positions according to the polls. Much the same can be said of Mike Huckabee, who despite his recent meteoric rise in popularity, is largely untested.

Duncan Hunter certainly has experience on his side. He has served in Congress for more than a quarter-century, was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and is currently the committee’s ranking Republican, but he has raised almost no money and is in single digits in the polls. Ron Paul, on the other hand, is a bona fide crank. This week we learned, for example, that he not only opposes the war in Iraq, but that he regards the Civil War as a mistake as well. Apparently he believes the Southern states should have been allowed to secede from the Union in 1861. As for slavery, Mr. Paul says it could have been ended by the federal government without a war. How? “You, you buy the slaves and release them,” he told Tim Russert on “Meet the Press.”

And Fred Thompson? He should go back to “Law and Order.” He was far more inspiring playing a tough New York district attorney than he has been as a candidate. Late to get started, Mr. Thompson brings nothing new or unique to the race, and his record in the Senate was conservative but lackluster.

That brings us to the only two candidates who are qualified by experience, character and temperament to become commander in chief: John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. Like most conservatives, I don’t agree with each and every position taken by either Mr. McCain or Mr. Giuliani. Of course, I can’t remember any presidential nominee whose positions I’ve agreed with 100 percent. Yet, I could vote enthusiastically for either man for much the same reason I voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980, the first time I cast a vote for a Republican nominee.

Then, as now, America faced an ominous foreign threat in the Soviet Union. After Jimmy Carter’s disastrous four years in office, U.S. military supremacy was in jeopardy, and communists had made further inroads in Asia, Latin America and Africa, not to mention the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

We’re in an even more precarious position now, facing a fanatical enemy that doesn’t yet have nuclear weapons but could conceivably gain access to them with growing instability in Pakistan and the dangerous nuclear potential of Iran and North Korea.

But Iowa Republicans, at least according to the polls, just don’t seem to get it. Mr. Giuliani barely outpolls Ron Paul in averages for polls taken in Iowa in the 10-day period before Christmas, according to RealClearPolitics.com, while Mr. McCain is in third place, though gaining some lost ground in recent weeks. New Hampshire voters seem to have more sense, with Mr. McCain in a close second place to Mr. Romney in the RCP poll averages. Mr. McCain looks poised for a surprise victory in New Hampshire, which could be a much-needed boost to the Republican who shows the best chance of beating either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in the general election.

Mr. McCain easily beats Mrs. Clinton in recent polling match-ups and ties Mr. Obama in the RCP averages. Mr. Giuliani also beats Mrs. Clinton in at least two recent polls. No other Republican comes close.

The stakes are simply too high for voters in Iowa and New Hampshire to ignore what happened this week in Pakistan. Let’s hope they choose the right man, for all our sakes.

Linda Chavez is a nationally syndicated columnist and author of “An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal.”