For the first time Monday, Americans will confront the stark choice they face in November as the two presidential candidates respond to a crisis unfolding in the midst of the campaign — the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
Their initial responses already outlined the differences: an outsider candidate whose first instinct was to crow that he predicted this weekend’s massacre vs. a seasoned politician who issued a carefully worded statement about terrorism and hate.
But dueling events on Monday afternoon will bring things into sharper focus as the nation reels from a terror attack on a gay club that left at least 49 dead and 53 wounded.
Aides to Hillary Clinton said she was changing up her message as she made what was supposed to be her first campaign rally in the perennial swing state of Ohio as the Democrats’ presumptive nominee. Donald Trump, the Republicans’ choice, planned an in-your-face foreign policy address in New Hampshire. His initial evening plans for a rally turned into a prayer vigil before his campaign aides scrapped it altogether, a sign the campaign was still finding its footing in the middle of the crisis.
Clinton has many options as she crafts her message.
The former First Lady has long known how to be the voice of consoler-in-chief, as she did in the wake of the terror attack against the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995. The former Senator from New York was in her first year in office when the Sept. 11 terrorist plot brought down the two towers in the south of Manhattan; she defiantly vowed to rebuild and voted to go to war in response. And the former Secretary of State was a vocal advocate for U.S. might, including the raid that killed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.
In addition to those three concurrent personas — all of which have earned her high marks for competence — she has what aides call her softer approach, which emphasizes her role as a mother and grandmother. Despite her sometimes-steely exterior, Clinton throughout her career has earned deep loyalty among her close aides for taking the moment to ask how they are doing during moments of national tragedy, including Sunday morning as details were still coming into relief. During this campaign, she has shown that empathy to tremendous effect with the women she calls the Mothers of the Movement — individuals whose children have been the victims of gun violence or police brutality.
Clinton aides late Sunday were still tailoring her remarks, which she was set to deliver in Cleveland just after noon Monday. Clinton has already started to lay the groundwork for a master argument that Trump is not fit to lead the country, starting with her brutal salvo in San Diego on June 2. Advisers were conscious that Clinton could not give the same campaign speech, ripe with politics, on Monday. But they also were unified in their belief that the moment gave Clinton a justified reason to remind voters what is at stake.
“Secretary Clinton will further address this act of terrorism and hate, and the steps she would take to keep Americans safe, in Cleveland on Monday, and beyond,” a senior campaign aide told TIME.
Trump, on the other hand, has his own brand of posturing that has served him well — at least during the Republican primaries. Take the shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., when an Islamic extremist opened fire in the workplace and killed 14. After the attack, Trump called for a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the U.S. In the wake of ongoing worry over attacks in Paris and Brussels, the rhetoric drew scorn from civil rights groups but votes among the Republican faithful.
Building on that, Trump tweeted on Sunday that he had been correct about terrorism for months. In a tweet, he said he does “appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance.” In another, he added, “What has happened in Orlando is just the beginning. Our leadership is weak and ineffective. I called it and asked for the ban. Must be tough.”
In another statement, Trump added that President Obama ought to resign, Clinton should exit the race and suggested the 2016 race — and political correctness — was over. “I am going to protect and defend all Americans. We are going to make America safe again and great again for everyone,” he said.
But Trump faces his own challenges in translating what won him the GOP primary into a national campaign that can be victorious. He is scheduled to travel to New Hampshire, his first primary win and the home turf for campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. He is slated to deliver what aides are calling “a major speech to further address this terrorist attack, immigration and national security” at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, located at Saint Anselm College. Trump had previously planned a Monday rally at a Portsmouth, N.H., community college, which aides then pitched as a prayer-based event. By the time evening arrived, Trump scrapped the whole event.
“Due to the horrific tragedy that has just taken place in Orlando, Florida, Mr. Trump is postponing the rally scheduled to take place,” aides told reporters by email.
The Florida attack stood to reshape the race more broadly than Monday, but this day would offer clues how it might unfold over the next five months. The White House scrapped Obama’s trip to campaign with Clinton on Wednesday in Wisconsin. Trump’s planned speech to attack Clinton over her long life in the public eye seemed to be on pause. Trump, at least temporarily, decided to press pause on the raucous rallies. The candidates and their allies were unsure what, exactly, the national psyche would reward.
The biggest open question as voters began their Monday was simple: Would the largest mass shooting in U.S. history encourage them to look for an experienced figure who has navigated decades of national tragedy as a policy adviser, or an outsider who thinks everything that has come before has proved insufficient? Inside each campaign, there were skeptics that their candidate had read the mood correctly.
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