Brussels Attacks Loom Large as Western States Vote

Republican 2016 Hopefuls React to Brussels Attacks
  • Republicans cast ballots in Arizona primary, Utah caucuses
  • Sanders seeks surge as Democrats vote in three contests

The deadly bombings in Brussels Tuesday are delivering a stark reminder to U.S. voters of the global terrorist threat as three western states hold contests in the presidential nomination race.

Whether the violence will affect voter attitudes as they cast ballots is unclear. Republicans are voting in a primary in Arizona and caucuses in Utah, while Democrats are casting ballots in a primary in Arizona and caucuses in Utah and Idaho.

Democratic and Republican candidates responded to the attacks, which killed at least 31 people, with tough talk about the need to hunt down extremists and with criticism of their rivals.

Republican front-runner Donald Trump was first to react to the bombings, calling for using “a lot more than waterboarding” to get information from suspected terrorists and for closing U.S. borders “until we figure out what’s going on.”

‘More Correct’

“I have proven to be far more correct about terrorism than anybody -- and it’s not even close,” Trump said in a Twitter message. “Hopefully AZ and UT will be voting for me today!”

His chief challenger, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, said in a statement that police should “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” He also faulted President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, for failing to name radical Islam as the enemy.

Ohio Governor John Kasich, who trails Trump and Cruz in the nomination race, called for strengthening alliances and warned against reactions that would alienate U.S. Muslims, saying, “This is a time when you have to keep your cool.”
 
Nathan Sproul, a Republican strategist in Tempe, Arizona, who is backing Cruz, said the candidates had already laid out their stances on terrorism and he doubted many Arizona Republicans changed their votes because of the attacks.

Clinton criticized Trump’s remarks as unrealistic and said the measures he proposed would be ineffective. She said the U.S. and its allies need to review surveillance tactics and “toughen soft targets” such as the airport arrival area and subway station where the attacks in Belgium were carried out.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who’s competing with Clinton for the Democratic nomination, told reporters in Flagstaff, Arizona, that the U.S. and its allies must form a coalition with Muslim nations in the Middle East to destroy Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the bomb blasts in Brussels.

Trump’s Momentum

The voting on Tuesday also will be the latest test of whether Trump is solidifying his push toward the party’s nomination or the movement to block him is gaining momentum.

The Republican contests are the first since Senator Marco Rubio of Florida dropped out of the presidential race last week, making the nominating fight a three-way contest among Trump, Cruz and Kasich.

While Cruz is making the case that Republicans should rally around him as the best chance to defeat Trump and elect a conservative, and Kasich wants a contested party convention in Cleveland in July, Trump is arguing that the party should get behind him now or risk losing the general election.

“If people want to be smart, they should embrace this movement,” Trump said at news conference in Washington on Monday. “If they don’t want to be smart, they should do what they’re doing now.”

50% Threshold

Cruz is leading polls in Utah, and the major question is whether he will top the 50 percent threshold needed to win all of the state’s 40 delegates, said Richard Davis, a political science professor at Brigham Young University. If no candidate receives at least half the vote, the delegates are awarded proportionally.

The Texas senator is attracting support among voters who don’t want to see Trump prevail, and he got a boost from 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who backed the senator on Friday and made a pre-recorded call for him this week, Davis said. Utah Governor Gary Herbert also said on Monday he would vote for Cruz, calling him a “consistent conservative” who should win all of the state’s delegates.

Trump isn’t popular in Utah, where two-thirds of residents are Mormons and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took the unusual step last year of issuing a statement supporting religious pluralism after Trump vowed to bar Muslims from entering the country, Davis said.

At a rally in Salt Lake City last week, Trump said of Romney, who has been a leader in the church, “Are you sure he’s a Mormon? Are we sure?”

Kasich has held campaign events in Utah and run television ads seeking to earn delegates there as part of his plan to prevail at a contested party convention on grounds that he’s best able to win the general election.

While Kasich has the backing of Mike Leavitt, the former Utah governor and cabinet official in George W. Bush’s administration, Romney and Cruz are telling voters that a vote for Kasich is essentially a vote for Trump.

The Ohio governor is a distant third in delegates so far with 143, behind Cruz with 424 and Trump with 680, according to an Associated Press delegate tally.

Arizona Primary

In Arizona, the state awards all of its 58 delegates to the winner. Trump’s populist and anti-immigration message, along with the backing of popular Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and former Governor Jan Brewer, helped him build a double-digit lead in an average of polls by RealClearPolitics.

Cruz has made a push in Arizona, but it’s unclear whether any late movement in the race will be enough to change the outcome because early voting started almost a month ago, said Sproul, the Republican strategist.

Fifty-four percent of the vote in Phoenix and Maricopa County was already in as of Monday, and more than half of all votes statewide are expected to be cast early, according to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office.

Cruz has been attracting many of Rubio’s supporters and others who don’t want Trump to win, said Sproul, who was co-chairman for the Florida senator’s campaign in the state and now is backing Cruz. Kasich didn’t campaign in Arizona.

“I personally feel a large surge toward Ted Cruz at this point,” Sproul said. “I just don’t know if that surge is big enough to overcome the early-ballot lead that I assume Trump has.”

Democrats’ Prospects

On the Democratic side, Sanders is counting on winning caucuses in Utah and Idaho and challenging Clinton for delegates in Arizona. He’s hoping for a resurgence as the nominating contests move west, even as she looks to expand her overwhelming lead in delegates.

Clinton is poised to win Arizona despite a push by Sanders because of her strong ties to the state and her advantage in early voting, said Bob Grossfeld, a Democratic consultant in Phoenix who isn’t aligned with either campaign.

“At this point, anybody putting on a last-minute push better be targeting really well or they’re going to waste a whole lot of money,” Grossfeld said.

Sanders held rallies on Monday in all three states voting on Tuesday instead of traveling to Washington to participate in an American Israel Public Affairs Committee forum.

In Utah, Sanders led Clinton by 8 percentage points in a Deseret News/KSL poll of likely voters conducted March 8-15, and the state’s mostly white, well-educated electorate favors the Vermont senator, said Davis of Brigham Young.

Sanders also hopes to win the caucuses in Idaho, though the two states have 64 total delegates combined compared with 85 in Arizona.

Clinton holds a delegate lead of 1,630 to 870, counting so-called superdelegates of party leaders and others who can change their minds, according to an Associated Press tally.

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