Friday, September 12, 2003

Yesterday’s anniversary of the attack on America is a painful reminder of the deadly stakes in the war on terrorism and why national security will be a pivotal issue in next year’s presidential election, campaign strategists say.

The political reverberations from the nation’s solemn observances remain a highly sensitive subject for President Bush’s campaign and Republican Party officials — who refuse to discuss any campaign implications of the September 11 anniversary, on or off the record.

But pollsters and advisers in both parties say this week’s and perhaps next year’s third anniversary — a few days after the GOP’s national convention in Manhattan, not far from ground zero — will underscore Mr. Bush’s strong suit: fighting terrorism and protecting America’s security.

“The anniversary reminds people of the dangerous times we are in and the critical importance of winning the war on terror. It elevates yet again the importance of foreign policy and military strength in the upcoming presidential elections,” said Whit Ayres, an Atlanta-based Republican pollster who often advises the White House on national issues.

“This week’s anniversary resurfaces what could be the fundamental question for 2004, which is: Are we safe? The key argument for Bush’s re-election will be whether he has protected the nation in the aftermath of September 11,” said a key Senate Republican campaign strategist. “Obviously, the economy is going to matter, but ‘Are we safe?’ is likely to be in 2004 what ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ was in 1992.”

But Democrats rejected any suggestion that the annual observances will help Mr. Bush next year.

“I think it reminds people of the tragedy and that does not belong to any party. To suggest otherwise that someone benefits from this is particularly callous,” said Tony Welch, the Democratic National Committee’s press secretary.

“This has not been a good week for Bush because of growing criticism of his handling of postwar planning in Iraq,” said Maria Cardona, strategist at the New Democrat Network.

“Does this mean that Democrats don’t need to have credibility on national security? Absolutely not. They need to be trusted by the American people on how they will keep them safe and if they don’t do that, they can’t win next year,” Miss Cardona said.

Whatever effect yesterday’s anniversary may have on voters’ beliefs about the war on terrorism and the postwar efforts in Iraq, polls show that what occurred two years ago is very much on voters’ minds. An ABC News poll this week found that 77 percent said they think about the attacks on New York and Washington “a lot.”

The poll also found that 67 percent approve of the way Mr. Bush is conducting the “U.S. campaign against terrorism,” while 28 percent disapproved.

Although Mr. Bush’s scores on the economy have fallen below 50 percent, his overall job approval score stood at 59 percent last month, according to a Gallup Poll.

“Given the public’s poor perception of the economy, you would expect the president not to have such robust approval ratings. I would suspect it is the lingering effect of the rallying power of the war against terrorism,” said Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll.

Meanwhile, Democratic Party leaders stepped up their drumbeat of criticism of Mr. Bush’s handling of the war on terrorism, charging that he has not invested enough in homeland security. They also say that he will have to answer for his decision to go to war with Iraq.

“For him to say ‘mission accomplished’ — I’d like him to go tell the families of the victims who have died since he stood on that aircraft carrier with that banner saying ‘mission accomplished.’ I’d like him to go talk to those parents. Mission was not accomplished,” DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe said Tuesday.

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