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@FactsOnly: How The Brussels Attack Redefined The Presidential Race

In that instant, a full slate of hot-button issues were implicated.

Kevin Van den Panhuyzen // NurPhoto

Welcome to Facts Only, our column covering the 2016 presidential election, written by REVOLT TV Chief Political Correspondent Amrit Singh. The feature's premiere was a primer on players and the race. The second installment broke down Super Tuesday 3 and contested conventions. Today (March 23) we examine how unexpected tragedies like Tuesday's terrorist attacks in Brussels can reshape a race, in real time, right before our eyes.

Monday night was the eve of "Western Tuesday," when the election process shifted over the Rockies and into the desert for showdowns in delegate-rich states like Arizona and Utah. Spinmasters went to bed that night prepared to weave political obituaries for the presidential candidates not performing well (or, not paying their bills).

Instead, the next morning, the world received news of legitimate tragedy, actual loss of life, and a morbid reminder that American presidential elections are rendered in real time, and are amongst the least predictable affairs on the global stage. In an instant, a candidate can go from shaking hands at a caucus center to standing behind a podium and in front of a flag, giving the press a formal response, playing dress-rehearsal President-for-a-day. Because when you run to become leader of the free world, anything that happens in the world is ripe for your lead—especially when that event might make the world less free.

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In Brussels, Belgium, a pair of coordinated bombings, claimed by ISIS, took the lives of dozens and wounded over 200 people on Tuesday morning. In that Brussels instant, a full slate of hot-button issues were implicated: The War On Terror. Immigration. Border Security. International Relations. NATO. EU. Torture. Data Privacy. Governmental Surveillance. All interconnected, all given new political charge.

On Monday night, I conducted a poll during our #REVOLT2Vote Twitter Talk for the CNN #FinalFive presidential candidate forum, asking how candidates' Middle East policy would affect your vote.

Less than half of you answered that it would "Greatly affect" (48 percent). Is it possible that number would be higher now, after the bombings in Brussels? Would it be higher knowing how the candidates would act in response to such an event? Or how all of this affects our global partners?

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While there weren’t many previously unknown policy points revealed during the candidates’ response to the horror in Brussels, the entire event provided a flashpoint to juxtapose their positions and to quickly crystalize the remarkably different types and tenors of administration each would have—and to see how decisively each answered the call.

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Trump was quick to phone into the morning shows, offering an "I told you so" tone and beating his drum on his long-proffered "ban on Muslims" from entering the country (which he insists would be temporary). He also explicitly called to legalize torture methods like waterboarding in order to extract information from operatives like Salah Abdeslam, the recently captured, Belgian-born Paris bomber. He reiterated his dislike for NATO (the "North American Treaty Organization," a commercial and military alliance per which members have an obligation of “mutual defense” against an attacker - including Belgium, and us.) This has become a serious debate on the Republican side, as Ted Cruz reiterated his support for NATO. He also called for a more secure Southern border, the patrolling of Muslim neighborhoods right here in the United States, and the identifying of "our enemy" as "radical Islamic terrorism."

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Hillary Clinton took to the trail to reject Trump’s torture talk, citing experts who claim the information received under such duress is unreliable, and that employing such methods would endanger our citizens who might find themselves taken hostage by terrorist cells abroad. She also rejected the isolationist talk of walls and divisiveness advocated by Trump, saying “How high does the wall have to be to keep the Internet out?”

Instead, Hillary advocated an approach which emphasized embracing the Muslim community—especially since their cooperation would be vital to recognizing a jihadist threat where it exists—and focusing on "stand(ing) together as allies and defeat(ing) terrorism and radical jihadism around the world." She also called on "tighten(ing) our security." And there will be more: The former Secretary of State gives an address on foreign policy and counterterrorism address today at Stanford. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders offered a statement that "Today's attack is a brutal reminder that the international community must come together to destroy ISIS. This type of barbarism cannot be allowed to continue." At a later campaign rally, he said "We can destroy ISIS without perpetual war."

For its part, ISIS is redefining how war is waged. The organization may be losing on the ground in their military campaigns in the Middle East. But abroad, in Europe, as a covert terrorist network, it is winning. ISIS seeks to drive a wedge between the Muslim world and that of the West by increasing tensions through terrorist attack, and baiting the sort of extremism we are seeing with the rise of Far Right parties in Germany and France, a political ripple reflected in the candidacies of Trump and Cruz, all of which champion isolationism and nativism. The unrest in Syria and the resultant refugee crisis, coupled with the uptick in terrorist attacks in Europe, has also led to the destabilization of the European Union’s most powerful leader in German President Angela Merkel, who is paying a political price for her policy of welcoming of refugees.

And as ISIS wins, the EU is destablized, and NATO comes under fire.

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John Kasich double downed on his support for NATO and our allies (of which Belgium is one). Per NATO, all members have an obligation of “mutual defense” against an attacker. President Obama indicated as much when he said, from Cuba, that we would “do whatever is necessary to support our friend and ally Belgium in bringing to justice those who are responsible.” This wasn’t enough for John Kasich, though, who called out the President for staying in Cuba and watching a baseball game with the country’s controversial president Raul Castro rather than coming home and tending to the emergency. (Obama’s response: Terrorists seek to interrupt our everyday lives, and so by executing his prior plans, he was defying the terrorists on a fundamental level.)

All in all, the candidates offered a full spectrum of world views. The implications of each candidates’ policies would have dramatically different effects on our safety abroad and domestically, and our relationship with the international community. The candidates' responses are a stark reminder that this will be a "choice election": The electorate will have a clear choice. There’s no confusing the policies of Clinton or Sanders with Trump or Cruz. (Maybe Kasich, though.) It’s a choice between coalition building and homeland shielding. It’s a difference between NATO commitment or the rejection of that alliance. It’s the choice between legalizing torture or rejecting it out of hand. It’s the option of allowing people of all cultural and religious backgrounds to America provided they are thoroughly screened, or “temporarily banning Muslims” from abroad and “patrolling their neighborhoods” in the United States.

It's about issues. It's about choices.

Let us hope there are no more tragedies like Brussels during this cycle. If there are, pay very close attention to who says what, and when. These are the moments when all of these issues reveal their interconnection. And they are your best shot at understanding these candidates.

Join the conversation about this column on Twitter today 3/23 at 7:00 p.m. ET using #REVOLT2Vote. And for more on the election, follow @amritsingh and @factsonly. Send news tips to revolt2vote@revolt.tv.

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