- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 1, 2004

Republicans are pleased that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice will testify about September 11 because it keeps the presidential campaign focused on national security — President Bush’s strong suit.

The Republican Party believes Democrats are repeating their blunder of the 2002 elections, when they demanded prolonged discussions about Iraq from Mr. Bush, who obliged and led Republicans to historic victories. Even some Democrats are becoming alarmed by the similarities between the two campaigns.

“They [messed] the 2002 election up and it looks like they’re trying to do the same thing with this one,” Democratic strategist Patrick Caddell said of his fellow party members. “Every time they hammer Bush on national security, they just help him because it puts the election on his ground.

“Americans have great confidence in George Bush’s ability to protect them,” he added. “When it comes to this subject, they’re overwhelmingly for Bush. So if the Democrats want to have a campaign on this issue, they’re insane.”

Republican strategist Ed Rogers agreed.

“It may be written in the 2004 campaign books that the last few days have been a strategy to drive up our ratings,” he said with a chuckle. “Republicans are trusted more than Democrats to manage national security issues — period.

“Democrats should be careful what they wish for,” he added. “I would suspect that Condi Rice has a ‘Q factor’ and a trust factor that’s higher than John Kerry’s.”

Even though Democrats won their demand that Miss Rice publicly testify before a commission investigating the terrorist attacks, they could be hurt in the long run.

“A lot of Republicans are secretly thrilled that Condi Rice is going to go to Capitol Hill,” said conservative political analyst Tony Snow on Fox News Channel. “They think as long as the war on terror is front and center in the political scene — whether it be due to Richard Clarke or Condoleezza Rice or anybody else — they think that helps.”

Many Democrats and journalists were surprised when the president’s poll numbers did not drop in the wake of recent accusations by Mr. Clarke, a former White House counterterrorism adviser, that Mr. Bush should have been better prepared for September 11.

The latest Gallup poll put the president’s approval rating at 53 percent, up four points from a month ago. And in four recent polls, Mr. Bush scored at least 20 points higher than Mr. Kerry when Americans were asked who would do a better job of protecting the country from terrorism.

Kerry campaign spokeswoman Kathy Roeder pointed out that while the Massachusetts Democrat supports the September 11 commission, he had no control over the timing of its hearings.

“This isn’t really of our making,” she said. “There are some things that you can’t control and should be beyond the scope of a presidential campaign.”

Miss Roeder questioned whether the focus on national security will rebound to the benefit of Republicans.

“They’re going back to the theory that any publicity is good publicity, even if it’s about how the president initially rejected a 9/11 commission, initially rejected a Homeland Security Office, initially rejected testifying to the 9/11 commission,” she said.

Still, Bush campaign officials are convinced that the media’s intense focus on Mr. Clarke, Miss Rice and the September 11 commission over the last 10 days has done nothing to harm the president and may have even helped him in the long run.

“Even through all the noise, the American people got a very thorough review of what happened between the president taking office and 9/11,” Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt said. “And they were generally supportive of what happened — in spite of Dick Clarke.

“National campaigns have to be about big issues of our time, and as long as the Democrats are fighting tactical battles over process, they’re missing the larger point of the election,” he added. “Playing tactical games inside the Beltway is not going to capture the imagination of the American people.”

Mr. Caddell added that Democrats “think that any tactical battle they get into is good. But what they’re doing is focusing the issue on the strongest grounds Bush stands on. I think they’re crazy; they can’t see the forest for the trees.”

Although Mr. Bush initially opposed letting Miss Rice publicly testify, his reversal this week effectively guaranteed that national security will continue to consume precious news cycles in the presidential campaign.

The White House sees little downside to the testimony since Miss Rice is considered one of the most articulate members of the administration and is not expected to say anything damaging to the president. She has already granted extensive private interviews to the commission and has freely answered questions in media interviews.

Thus, Republicans are hopeful that the public testimony will yield long-term benefits, even if the flap costs Mr. Bush a few short-term political points. Ironically, it was this short-term damage that convinced White House officials to compromise with the commission by allowing Miss Rice to testify, as long as it would not set a precedent.

Meanwhile, additional news cycles will be consumed by the story of Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney agreeing to jointly answer questions from the commission in closed session.

The dominance of national security as a campaign theme in the 2004 race recalls the midterm elections of 2002, when a similar story line played out. In the summer before that election, Democrats scored short-term political points by criticizing the president for not making his case for war against Iraq.

Some predicted that Mr. Bush would not seek the blessing of the United Nations or even the U.S. Congress before waging war. But Mr. Bush went to both institutions and asked them to pass resolutions of support, a process that resulted in months of debate.

That ensured the dominance of national security as a campaign issue right through Election Day. Although a president’s party usually suffers major defeats in his first midterm, Mr. Bush led Republicans to victories in both the House and Senate.

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