- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Democrats have decided to fight President Bush this fall on his traditional turf — national security — but the president and his fellow Republicans running in the mid-term congressional elections hold an edge on the issue, which proved pivotal in the last two cycles.

The two parties are splitting the debate, with the president and Republicans pressing for tools to fight terrorism abroad as they seek to expand the issue to a global scale, and Democrats staying closer to home, arguing that the international war against terror makes Americans less safe.

“Obviously we’ve beefed up airport security in some ways, but as we’ve learned over the last week, not in every way that matters,” said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat. “We still have not done what we need to do to protect our ports, our borders, our bridges, our transit systems, our rail lines — it’s a long list.”

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada signaled that Democrats are preparing to take the battle to the president, painting Republicans as distracted by worldwide terrorism and unfocused on needs at home.

“Five years after 9/11, the president still has not taken the necessary steps to prevent terrorists from taking explosives onto airplanes,” Mr. Reid said yesterday. “Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, the chairman and vice chairman of the 9/11 commission, said this week that the Iraq war has depleted our resources and distracted the Bush administration from making homeland security a priority.”

But the president has a built-in advantage. The foiled airplane attacks have reminded Americans that he has a track record on national security, and a majority, 55 percent, approve of Mr. Bush’s handling of terrorism and homeland security. That is an 11-point boost since last May and the highest rating since early 2005, according to a Newsweek poll taken after the foiled terrorist attack in London.

In addition, a CBS News poll conducted over the weekend found that terrorism has re-emerged as a major issue for many Americans: cited by 17 percent, up from 7 percent last month.

Since the arrests in London, the president has put the spotlight on his war against terror. He put out statements and a weekend radio address on the topic during his brief working vacation in Crawford, Texas, and held a press conference Monday at the State Department. Yesterday, he kept up the onslaught by spending much of the day meeting with top officials at the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean.

“America is safer than it has been, but it’s not yet safe. The enemy has got an advantage when it comes to attacking our homeland — they’ve got to be right one time, and we’ve got to be right a hundred percent of the time to protect the American people,” he said.

But Phil Singer, communications director for the National Democratic Senatorial Committee, said Republicans “have a record to run from, not on.”

“Republican policies have failed to stabilize Iraq, they’ve turned a blind eye to North Korea’s and Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, they’ve failed to secure ports, transit systems and borders. Everything they’ve tried to do has either made the situation worse or simply failed to address a key vulnerability,” he said.

Still, Republicans point out that Americans have always trusted their party more on national security, and a debate just before an election can only help them. Plus, they say, Democrats have spent the past two years fighting Bush administration efforts to secure the homeland, and voters will remember that in November.

“They have politicized many aspects of the war on terror since the last election. Reid bragged about killing the Patriot Act; they’ve questioned the terrorist surveillance program; they politicized Abu Ghraib,” said Brian Nick, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “All of these things they’ve done certainly scores them political points … with their base, which is the anti-war fringe left.”

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