- The Washington Times - Monday, September 30, 2002

Tom Daschle's recent outburst had more to do with his political frustration over Iraq's dominance in the election debate than with President Bush's slap at Senate Democrats on national security.
In other words, the White House strategy of shifting the election year dialogue to its strongest ground, national defense and homeland security, is working. Try as he might, Mr. Daschle and the Democrats are unable to break through the talk of war against Iraq with their own messages on prescription drugs, corporate abuses or even the stock market.
The Senate majority leader was being ridiculed in private by his fellow Democrats for his begrudging embrace of Mr. Bush's war plans against Saddam Hussein. The issue is getting traction and threatens Democratic control of the Senate. Polls show voters are more concerned about Iraq's growing threat than they are about domestic issues right now.
So, when Mr. Bush frustrated by the Senate's delay on a bill to create a Department of Homeland Security complained that the Senate was "not interested in the security of the American people," Mr. Daschle saw his chance to strike back.
In an emotional, high-pitched voice, shouting at times, Mr. Daschle accused Mr. Bush of exploiting his war plans and the fight against terrorism for political gain in the elections. He demanded Mr. Bush apologize for his national security remark and warned it will undermine his efforts to get broad, bipartisan support for a war resolution.
But Mr. Daschle's temper tantrum accomplished little for his party beyond a one-day story. No one doubts a toughly worded resolution will receive strong bipartisan support in the House and Senate. And, like it or not, Iraq, the war on terrorism and national security are going to be the focus of this election and may influence the outcome of some closely fought races, just as White House political adviser Karl Rove is predicting.
A Gallup Poll found that, by a margin of 49 percent to 41 percent, voters are more worried about Iraq than the economy when it comes down to deciding whom they will support in House and Senate races on Election Day. This represents a 16-point shift since last month.
Further bad news for the Democrats: An Ipsos Public Affairs poll shows that, by a 6-point margin, more Americans now think the country is moving in the right direction. That represents a 13-point shift in voter attitudes.
Mr. Daschle sees himself and his party being pushed into a political box by the White House. The economy is anemic. Stocks had been falling in the past month, devastating 401(k) plans. But the national political agenda is being dominated by debate over a resolution giving Mr. Bush approval to take all necessary actions to deal with Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
In the Senate cloakroom, Democrats were telling Mr. Daschle he was being rolled by Mr. Bush on Iraq and it was hurting his party's chances in the midst of a critical election. One Senate Democrat said, "He's getting played for a fool."
If anything, Mr. Daschle may have hurt himself and his party by raising the "politicization" cry, a charge that gets him headlines but little, if any, traction among voters, especially when Democrats like Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut is stoutly defending Mr. Bush's handling of the Iraqi threat and rejects Mr. Daschle's accusation.
"Who's the enemy here: the president of the United States or Saddam Hussein?" Senate Republican leader Trent Lott said in a speech responding to Mr. Daschle's attacks.
This was a time for Mr. Daschle to be sending a signal that the U.S. Senate is behind the president against the growing military threat that Iraq now poses in the Middle East and to the United States. Was British Prime Minister Tony Blair also playing politics when he spoke in the House of Commons last week, revealing new intelligence that Saddam could unleash biological and chemical weapons within 45 minutes' notice?
Indeed, it was Mr. Daschle who appeared to be playing politics with the issue. Under political pressure from the left wing of his party to challenge Mr. Bush more forcefully, and with complaints from his party's grass roots that the Democratic base needs energizing, the South Dakotan chose to attack the president in the midst of a brewing war. He could not have picked a worse time to do so.
To his credit, Mr. Bush wasn't backing down, nor was he apologizing for his remarks. After all, the Democratic-run Senate has been delaying action on the homeland defense bill for months. What are they waiting for another attack?
Meantime, Mr. Daschle is getting advice from many Democrats to vote on a resolution as soon as possible to end the debate. But that's not going to put the national security issue to rest in this election. The terrorist threat is still with us. Saddam Hussein's war arsenal is getting stronger.
And the day of reckoning is drawing closer.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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