Both Parties Claim Edge as Terror Is Reinforced as a Campaign Topic

By Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 11, 2006

Democrats and Republicans alike rushed to invoke yesterday's terrorist scare in Britain in congressional campaigns, underscoring how a series of national-security-related developments are refocusing and sharpening the political debate three months before the midterm elections.

Campaigning in Connecticut, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, who lost Tuesday's Democratic primary and is now running as an independent, said the antiwar views of primary winner Ned Lamont would be "taken as a tremendous victory by the same people who wanted to blow up these planes in this plot hatched in England."

Rep. Mark Kennedy, the Republican Senate candidate in Minnesota, used the alleged plot as a campaign wedge only hours after it was disclosed.

"The arrests this morning in Great Britain make it clear that now, more than ever, this is an ongoing battle and we need leaders in Washington who remain committed to doing what is right instead of what may be seen as politically advantageous," he said. To amplify the point, Kennedy endorsed Lieberman over the GOP candidate in the race, Alan Schlesinger.

President Bush offered a similar line, in more understated language, while in Green Bay, Wis., to campaign for a Republican candidate.

"This country is safer than it was prior to 9/11," Bush said with Air Force One behind him. "We've taken a lot of measures to protect the American people. But obviously we're still not completely safe, because there are people that still plot and people who want to harm us for what we believe in."

In what was an apparent reference to this year's controversies over the administration's surveillance programs, Bush told reporters: "It is a mistake to believe there is no threat to the United States of America. And that is why we have given our officials the tools they need to protect our people."

The alleged plot -- with its parallels to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- was the latest in a series of events reshaping the campaign in unpredictable ways. In the past five weeks, Israel went to war with Hezbollah, Bush's top generals warned that Iraq is closer than ever to civil war and Lamont ousted Lieberman in Connecticut's Democratic primary.

The events have emboldened Democrats to challenge Bush more forcefully on national security issues, especially Iraq.

"This latest plot demonstrates the need for the Bush administration and the Congress to change course in Iraq and ensure that we are taking all the steps necessary to protect Americans at home and across the world," said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

At the same time, the events have clarified the Republican strategy to make terrorism and the war the backdrop for the battle for Congress. Both sides argue that they have the edge in this fight.

"It brings all those realities home and brings back some of the memories of 9/11 that got us into the war on terrorism in the first place," said Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Unlike in the 2004 election, when Republicans clearly benefited from the terrorism issue and a general sense of insecurity among many voters, the politics are muddled this year. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, conducted last week, found Democrats with an eight-point edge when people were asked which party they trusted more to handle terrorism issues.

"I can't help but admit that I had a small knot in my stomach this morning," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "It was eerily familiar. But upon reflection, we are in a fundamentally different place in 2006 than we were in 2002 and 2004. For two or three generations, Republicans have, in the main, had a very substantial advantage on national security. The reality is, they have squandered that advantage in the sands of Iraq."

In the Post poll, 47 percent approved of Bush's handling of the terrorism issue, a 10-point drop from a similar stage two years ago. But Republican strategists say the polling misses the political significance of the new focus on terrorism and war. Conservatives are generally unhappy with the party over issues such as immigration and federal spending, but they care more about security matters than any other group, and their motivation to vote Republican may now resurface.

The arrests came as Bush was on a working vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Tex. Aides said he had been kept informed about the developments in recent days and was briefed at the ranch last weekend.

He spoke with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in a secure videoconference on Sunday, a conversation that the White House at the time described as being about the Middle East, and again Wednesday. Bush was not aware that the British were about to seize the suspects until Wednesday, White House officials said. That same day, when Vice President Cheney attacked Democrats after Lamont's victory for being weak on national security, he knew about the British investigation but not that arrests were imminent, the officials said.

Peter H. Wehner, the White House director of strategic initiatives, distributed an e-mail to allies and reporters calling the alleged London plot a "clarifying moment" that should be, as he put it in the subject line, "a reminder of the stakes in this struggle." He argued that it underscores the fallacy of Democratic attacks on Bush's leadership in the fight against terrorism.

A few hours earlier, the Republican National Committee e-mailed a fundraising letter -- signed by former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani -- that read: "Only with the financial commitment of patriotic Americans like you can the RNC provide the candidate assistance, campaign programs, registration drives and voter outreach that are absolutely essential for electing Republicans across the nation."

RNC spokesman Brian Jones said that it was mistakenly sent by a low-level staffer and that the RNC regrets the timing.

Baker reported from Green Bay. Staff writer Dan Balz and assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.

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