Monday, March 8, 2004

Americans see international terrorism as the most critical threat to the United States, according to a new Gallup Poll that suggests that unless a candidate is seen as strong in the war on terror, voters will not view his campaign as credible.

According to the survey, 82 percent of Americans said international terrorism is a “critical threat” to the vital interests of the United States, and 75 percent said the spread of weapons of mass destruction is also a critical threat.

The two issues ranked far higher than the next most critical threats, which the poll found to be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Islamic fundamentalism and large numbers of immigrants entering the United States, all of which placed between 50 percent and 58 percent.

“It confirms that security is back at the center of American politics. It’s going to be the dominant issue in this presidential campaign, no matter what people say is their number one priority,” said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a Democrat-leaning think tank that has been arguing the political importance of security for more than a year.

Both parties’ presidential campaigns have recognized the nature of the issue. President Bush’s attacks on Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and the party’s presumptive nominee, have so far concentrated on tax increases and the senator’s record of voting against defense systems.

Yesterday, Mr. Bush charged that Mr. Kerry proposed, and voted for, cuts in the intelligence appropriations. Mr. Kerry’s campaign responded that those votes were part of an effort to eliminate waste and pork, and were a stand against “a slush fund for defense contractors.”

One Republican strategist said that pattern will repeat itself over the next three months: Mr. Bush will repeatedly make the case that Mr. Kerry is not the right man to lead the war on terror.

“This guy’s been opposed to everything that would secure America since he got off the plane from Vietnam,” the strategist said. “The question is whether the Bush campaign is going to be able to articulate it, and if the American people are going to buy it.”

The strategist also said the polls show national security is a hurdle both candidates must first clear in order to make the rest of their case for the presidency.

“This is a threshold issue,” he said. “Nobody gets to talk about the economy or any of that other stuff until they’ve shown they’re going to be sufficiently tough on this.”

For Mr. Bush, Republicans and Democrats said that case is obvious, mainly because he was the president on September 11 and responded decisively to the terrorist attacks.

“There’s no question that image of the president as a decisive wartime leader is one of his great assets,” Mr. Marshall said.

But he also said the questions surrounding Mr. Bush’s pursuit of the war in Iraq may complicate that picture: “What’s happened in Iraq has raised large questions about this administration’s credibility.”

As for Mr. Kerry, Mr. Marshall said meeting the threshold will depend on how well he responds to Mr. Bush’s attacks on the issue, though he said, “I’m feeling fairly confident Senator Kerry is not going to be vulnerable to the Republican campaign to portray him as mushy on national security.”

Another poll, taken by the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies and the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for National Public Radio, found Mr. Bush with an overwhelming lead on terrorism and national security.

Among the 24 percent who placed it as one of their top two issues, Mr. Bush had a 56 percentage-point advantage over Mr. Kerry, the bipartisan poll found. Altogether, terrorism and national security ranked second on the list of important issues, behind the economy and jobs, which were cited by 49 percent as one of the top two issues.

The Gallup Poll, meanwhile, found that Republicans were more likely to rank terrorism as a critical threat than were Democrats. For Republicans, 92 percent ranked terrorism as a critical threat, while just 77 percent of Democrats did and 79 percent of independents did.

But Democrats were less likely to view almost every other issue as a threat as well, including the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and the conflict on the Korean Peninsula, according to the poll of 1,002 adults, which was taken in February and had a margin of error of three percentage points.

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