The Baltimore minefield for 2016 hopefuls

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Image copyright AP
Image caption Hillary Clinton says Freddie Gray's death "demands answers"

The situation in Baltimore may have been dominating the news in the US for the past few days, but most presidential hopefuls are treading carefully when it comes to talking about the unrest.

Of all the candidates, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been one of the most active in her response to the death of Freddie Gray from a spinal injury while in Baltimore police custody earlier this month. She tweeted on Monday night that she was "praying for peace and safety" and that Gray's death "demands answers".

At a fund-raiser in New York on Tuesday she elaborated on her views.

"The tragic death of another young African-American man," she said. "The injuries to police officers. The burning of peoples' homes and small businesses. We have to restore order and security. But then we have to take a hard look as to what we need to do to reform our system,"

On Wednesday she provided more specifics, calling for body cameras on all police officers.

"It will protect good people on both sides of the lens," Mrs Clinton said in a Manhattan speech. "This is a common-sense step we should take".

A look at the response on the Republican side reveals why talking about such a controversial topic can prove to be a political minefield for politicians.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, for instance, told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham that the Baltimore unrest raises larger cultural questions, after joking that he's glad the train he was on "didn't stop" in the city during a recent trip to Washington, DC.

"There are so many things we can talk about that I think it's something we talk about not in the immediate aftermath, but over time," he said. "You know, the breakdown of the family structure, the lack of fathers, the lack of sort of a moral code in our society. This isn't just a racial thing."

This prompted liberal bloggers to note that Paul's son has been cited multiple times for alcohol-related incidents, including a recent arrest for driving while intoxicated.

"Good thing Rand Paul is running for president," writes Wonkette's Kaili Joy Gray. "Clearly, he's the perfect dad for the job."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is sending 150 state law enforcement officers to Baltimore

Paediatric neurosurgeon turned conservative activist Ben Carson, who is planning to announce his own bid for the Republican presidential nomination on Monday, also found himself in the spotlight after criticising the "irresponsible individuals" responsible for rioting and looting.

"I urge parents, grandparents and guardians to please take control of your children and do not allow them to be exposed to the dangers of uncontrolled agitators on the streets," Mr Carson, the former Baltimore resident, writes in a commentary on Baltimore for Time magazine.

Several hours after the piece was published on Time's website, he added a new first line to his piece, in which he said his "thoughts and prayers" are with Gray's family and "first responders and officers", after not mentioning them at all in the earlier version.

Among the top tier of Republican candidates - at least according to the current round of polls - the responses have been decidedly muted.

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Image caption Ted Cruz's statement on Baltimore is devoid of his usual partisan barbs

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's only comment so far has been a short tweet on Tuesday: "Our prayers for restoration of peace in Baltimore." Then it was back to messages about the Keystone XL pipeline and plugs for a chance to win a signed copy of his book.

Florida Governor Jeb Bush told reporters during a Puerto Rico visit that "there has to be a commitment to the rule of law and to law enforcement".

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie tweeted that he was deploying 150 members of the New Jersey State Patrol at Maryland Governor Larry Hogan's request, "to help ensure a peaceful resolution for the city and people of Baltimore".

Texas Senator Ted Cruz issued a 292-word statement on Wednesday praising the heroism of the police and noting that "today families are scared".

"Every case deserves justice, and the facts surrounding Freddie Gray's death should be thoroughly and impartially investigated," he writes. "But rioting and mayhem are not the answer."

Mr Cruz's measured responses stands in contrast to other topics, where he - and other Republican candidates - have rushed to prove they can be the harshest critics of President Barack Obama and the Democrats.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, so far, have been silent on the topic.

A look at conservative commentary about Baltimore is all that's needed to get a flavour of the reaction among the partisan rank and file.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Martin O'Malley's tenure as Baltimore mayor may complicate his presidential aspirations

Baltimore is not America's problem, writes Breitbart's John Nolte, noting that the city has been run by liberals for 50 years. "Baltimore is a Democrat problem. These riots are nothing more than Democrat infighting, and the videos of these riots are nothing more than infomercials for U-Haul and the NRA."

One of those Democrats is former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, who served as Baltimore's mayor from 1997 to 2007. He's another presidential hopeful who has often touted his support for policing efforts that lowered his city's high crime rates.

Now, however, Mr O'Malley is facing questions about whether those law enforcement tactics have led to a police force that condones excessive violence. The city has paid more than $5.7m (£3.7m) in damages since 2011 for cases of police brutality, according to the Baltimore Sun.

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Media captionThe BBC's Aleem Maqbool reports from Baltimore after the curfew was enforced

"Every mayor does their very best to strike the right balance, to save as many lives as we possibly can," Mr O'Malley told reporters on Tuesday. "What we had zero tolerance for was police misconduct. We worked at it every day."

Mr O'Malley cut short a trip to Europe to make appearances in Baltimore's affected neighbourhoods, where he was heckled by residents.

"This is his fault!" shouted one man, according to the Washington Post.

While other candidates may stumble, if Baltimore turns into the latest powder keg of racial unrest in the US, Mr O'Malley stands to be the candidate most likely to get permanently burned.

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