Stepping Up Attacks, Bush Calls Democrats 'Softer' on Terrorists

President Bush is introduced by Rep. John T. Doolittle, R-Calif., left, during a campaign fundraiser in El Dorado Hills, Calf.
President Bush is introduced by Rep. John T. Doolittle, R-Calif., left, during a campaign fundraiser in El Dorado Hills, Calf. (By Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- Associated Press)
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 4, 2006

STOCKTON, Calif., Oct. 3 -- President Bush ratcheted up his campaign offensive against Democrats on Tuesday with perhaps his bluntest rhetoric yet as he accused them of being "softer" on terrorists and willing to allow attacks on Americans rather than interrogate or spy on the nation's enemies.

With his party in serious trouble five weeks before Election Day, Bush shifted into full campaign mode this week, kicking off a month of frenetic barnstorming aimed at drawing disgruntled Republicans back into the fold. As part of the effort, he has escalated the intensity of his attacks with each passing day, culminating with what aides called a "very aggressive" series of speeches Tuesday.

"Time and time again, the Democrats want to have it both ways," he told donors here. "They talk tough on terror, but when the votes are counted, their softer side comes out."

He added: "If you don't think we should be listening in on the terrorist, then you ought to vote for the Democrats. If you want your government to continue listening in when al-Qaeda planners are making phone calls into the United States, then you vote Republican."

Bush's tough talk Tuesday came after he suggested at a Monday night fundraiser in Nevada that Democrats were content to sit back until terrorists strike again. "It sounds like they think the best way to protect the American people is wait until we're attacked again," he said.

The emphasis on terrorism and allegations of Democratic weakness replicate a strategy used to powerful effect in 2002 and 2004, but polls suggest the president may have a harder sell this year.

"That's not resonating anymore," California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres said. "It's like the plaintive pleas of King Lear. People don't believe him anymore. You can cry wolf only so many times."

A poll by the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University found that just 27 percent of Californians approve of Bush's performance, while 62 percent disapprove. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) stayed away from his three California stops Tuesday rather than be photographed with the unpopular president.

The two House Republicans who were beneficiaries of Bush's fundraising hail from usually safe districts, but both face serious competition this year. Reps. Richard W. Pombo and John T. Doolittle both have ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and Democratic polling suggests both are running roughly even with Democratic challengers.

And the campaigning was interrupted by the mushrooming scandal regarding former representative Mark Foley (R-Fla.). During a tour of the George W. Bush Elementary School in Stockton, the first in the nation named after him, Bush broke a four-day silence on Foley to pronounce himself "disgusted by the revelations." But he stood by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who faces calls from conservatives to step down for not pursuing early warnings about Foley's contacts with former House pages. Hastert, Bush said, "cares about the children of this country."

Bush opened his three-day swing through the West in Reno, Nev., on Monday, followed by stops Tuesday in Stockton, El Dorado Hills and Los Angeles, and he will conclude Wednesday in Arizona and Colorado. He raised $2.3 million in three events Tuesday, bringing his total to nearly $185 million at 75 events in the two-year election cycle, eclipsing the record he set in 2002.

Along the way, he has sharpened his tone. While saying he does not question their patriotism, Bush paints Democrats as a "cut-and-run" party that enables terrorists.

His indictment centers on three pieces of legislation: the USA Patriot Act expanding law enforcement powers; a measure authorizing warrantless surveillance of telephone calls and e-mail into and out of the United States when one person is suspected of ties to terrorists; and legislation creating military tribunals that restricts the rights of terror suspects and permits harsh interrogation to extract information. Noting that Democrats supported the Patriot Act in 2001 before filibustering its renewal last winter, Bush said, "They voted for it before they voted against it."

Bush's language, though, characterizes Democratic positions through his own prism. Critics of the surveillance program have not argued against listening to terrorist phone calls but say the government should get warrants from a secret intelligence court. Likewise, many critics of the tribunal measure did not oppose interrogating prisoners generally, as Bush said, but specific provisions of the bill, such as denying the right of habeas corpus or giving the president freedom to authorize what they consider torture.

"The sad truth is this White House and this Republican-controlled Congress have put our national security at risk," said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "It's time for a change. The American people expect more than tough talk from their leaders. They expect tough and smart action. Democrats are fighting to take this country in a new direction."

A couple of hundred protesters gathered outside the Stockton Memorial Civic Auditorium for the Pombo event, holding up signs such as "Lie, Deny, Occupy" and "State of Denial," and shouting, "Shame on you," at those entering the building. While Schwarzenegger stayed away, another actor showed up: Richard Kiel, the actor who played the villain Jaws in James Bond films.

Bush again remarked that it seems "like an eternity" since December elections in Iraq but predicted that "when this chapter of history will be written . . . it's going to be a comma -- the Iraqis voted, comma, and the United States of America understood that Iraq was a central front in the war on terror and helped this young democracy flourish." Democrats have complained that the comment dismisses thousands of American deaths as "a comma."

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