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Analysis:: Will the violence across America change the presidential campaign?

Dallas police officers gather outside Baylor Medical Center, where several officers injured in a mass shooting were taken for care.
(Associated Press)

Crises that arise during presidential campaigns often define the candidates.

Will this horrific week prove to be the crucible of the current campaign?

Violence has shuddered through America since Tuesday: First, two controversial shootings by police of African American men, captured on cameras and spread on social media; then the assassination of at least five Dallas police officers and the wounding of others by a sniper after a peaceful march protesting the earlier deaths.

At the very minimum, the bickering between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton has been temporarily overshadowed, much as it was less than four weeks ago when a single assailant killed 49 people and wounded more than 50 others in an Orlando, Fla., nightclub.

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That pause proved temporary and for all its horror, had little effect on the presidential race.

But in past decades, dramatic disorder has had a political impact. The convulsions of protests and violence in 1968 — albeit occurring in a vastly different country — helped swing the presidential election that year to the law-and-order candidate, Republican Richard Nixon.

The effect of the latest outbreak may be fully determined only when more specifics are known about the Dallas attack.

Already, however, the three days of shootings have served as a reminder of how events outside the campaign can overwhelm the carefully plotted strategies of the candidates. For a time, at least, the question of whom Trump will pick as a running mate and the details of Clinton’s handling of classified information in her emails while secretary of State seem unlikely to attract much attention.

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Whether the effect goes deeper and persists also will depend on how a polarized public — and the candidates — frame the week’s deadly events with their fraught elements of racial tension and maintenance of public order.

Both candidates began shaping their responses — and the public’s view of events — on Friday.

Trump, who cancelled a planned Florida event, has built much of his campaign around the idea that America is no longer “safe.” He couples his denunciations of illegal immigration with claims that American cities are places of danger where his audiences — mostly older, white and nonurban — would rightly fear to walk.

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He could benefit if voters see this week’s killings as part of a general picture of national chaos — a crisis of authority requiring a tough response.

In a statement released early Friday, Trump largely cast the events in that vein, saying it was necessary to “restore law and order” and “the confidence of our people to be safe and secure in their homes and on the street.”

But he also used terminology rare for a candidate who has been criticized for months for using divisive racially-inflected rhetoric — and one who regularly lauds police while dismissing complaints about police violence.

He called the shootings by police of African American men in Louisiana and Minnesota “senseless” and said they remind “us how much more needs to be done.”

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“Our nation has become too divided,” Trump said, adding that “racial tensions have gotten worse, not better.”

The words used by Trump and other Republicans seemed a cautionary nod to how the country has changed since Republican nominee Nixon profited from his law-and-order approach. Reince Priebus, the national Republican party chairman, included the two killings by police and the Texas shootings in a statement describing them all as “tragedies.”

Notably, neither Trump nor Priebus had commented on the African-American shootings until Friday.

“All life is precious and it grieves us to see it lost in the many ways it has been this week. All of these tragedies need to be investigated and justice needs to be served in an open and transparent way,” Priebus wrote.

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If a whiter and more conservative America embraced the law-and-order message in the past, current-day America, with its more polyglot face, may well respond by seeking out a more deliberate, less unpredictable leader in Clinton. She also has made efforts to reduce gun violence a central tenet of her campaign for more than a year, giving her an authenticity on that topic that Trump lacks.

A search for steadiness in a troubled time boosted then-Sen. Barack Obama and hurt Sen. John McCain in 2008 when the Republican’s haphazard reaction to the nation’s economic collapse helped define him as a riskier bet for voters. The calmer response by Obama, then still a relatively unknown figure nationally, helped voters see him as capable in the face of calamity.

Clinton on Friday canceled a planned Pennsylvania event with Vice President Joe Biden, but in interviews expressed her condolences to both the families of the Dallas police officers and the men killed in Louisiana and Minnesota.

“This is deeply troubling and it should worry every single American,” she said on CNN, calling on all Americans “to do much more” to listen to and respect each other but adding that white Americans have a special need to listen to the problems faced by African Americans.

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“Let’s start putting ourselves in each other’s shoes again and really coming together as Americans,” she said. “We just have to make up our minds that we are going to bring our country together.”

Clinton also pointed to police training proposals she forwarded last year that would lessen the number of civilian shootings at the hands of officers.

But voters’ views of Trump and Clinton are so negative — and supporters of both are already so dug in — that even their responses to a week such as this may not change voters’ perceptions.

For more on politics »

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Another problem facing the presidential candidates as they seek to serve as unifying figures in the aftermath of the week’s violence: its elemental parts inspire great division.

Segments in the country see the shootings of African American men as a demonstration of a biased criminal justice system. Others give the benefit of the doubt to police officers who are integral protectors of society.

The division has played out with strong support from young and minority Americans for the Black Lives Matter movement — and far less support for it among older, white Americans, a divide that echoes the Clinton-Trump split among voters.

President Obama has sought to bridge that gap. Before the Dallas violence erupted, he spoke in Poland, where he had traveled for a NATO summit, of the shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota. He suggested both African American victims and diligent police officers should be embraced.

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“This is not just a black issue. It’s not just a Hispanic issue. This is an American issue that we should all care about. All fair-minded people should be concerned,” he said of the shootings by police.

In the next sentence, he praised police officers with words that would echo painfully just hours later.

“They’ve got a dangerous job. It is a tough job,” he said. “And as I’ve said before, they have a right to go home to their families, just like anybody else on the job.”

After Thursday night, at least five of them will never again go home to their families in Dallas, a fate shared by men in Baton Rouge, La., and Falcon Heights, Minn. The challenge ahead for the presidential candidates — and a steep one given the often dismal contours of this campaign — is to persuade the nation that it can mourn all seven, simultaneously, with something approaching unity.

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cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker. For more on politics, go to latimes.com/deckerand subscribe to the free daily newsletter.

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UPDATES:

2:07 p.m.: This article was updated with additional quotes and details.

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This article was originally published at 7:27 a.m.


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