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McCain Adviser May Have Struck a Nerve

By Jonathan Weisman and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama and his surrogates continued to criticize Charles R. Black Jr., a top adviser to Sen. John McCain, on Tuesday for saying a terrorist attack before the November election would help the presumptive Republican nominee. But behind their protests lay a question that has dogged Democrats since Sept. 11, 2001: Was Black speaking the truth?

"I don't think anyone knows the answer to this question," said Tad Devine, a senior strategist on Sen. John F. Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign, which confronted the same internal debate. "On the one hand, Republicans say they made America safe. That argument goes by the wayside if there's an attack. On the other hand, an attack would change the entire framework of this election."

Black's comment to Fortune magazine that a terrorist attack "certainly would be a big advantage" roiled the presidential campaign for a second straight day. Obama -- who has made a determined effort to shore up his credentials on national security since clinching the Democratic nomination, arguing that the United States is less safe now than before President Bush took office -- wasted no time in trying to counter Black's statement. Obama dispatched Richard Ben-Veniste, a member of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, to hold a conference call with reporters in which he called Black's comments "a candid and very disappointing glimpse into the thinking of one of McCain's closest advisers." He did not directly call for Black to step aside.

"I think the remarks were so out of place that they call for some recalibration in the thinking and perhaps a greater adherence to principle here in staying away from the politics of fear," Ben-Veniste said.

McCain has distanced himself from Black's comments, saying, "If he said that -- and I don't know the context -- I strenuously disagree."

But radio host Rush Limbaugh said aloud what other Republicans have been saying privately for months. Black's comments were "obvious," Limbaugh said yesterday on his program as he criticized McCain for distancing himself from them.

Limbaugh said in no uncertain terms that Obama would be weak in the face of terrorism. "We know damn well it's Obama who would seek to appease our enemies. We know damn well it's McCain who won't put up with another attack," Limbaugh said.

To this day, Kerry (D-Mass.) has blamed an Osama bin Laden videotape released on Oct. 29, 2004, for his defeat in the election the following week. And McCain, while campaigning in Connecticut for Rep. Christopher Shays that week in 2004, described the bin Laden video as a boost for Bush. "I think it's very helpful to President Bush," McCain said at the time. "It focuses America's attention on the war on terrorism. I'm not sure if it was intentional or not, but I think it does have an effect."

Devine said Kerry campaign officials always feared an "October surprise" -- the capture of bin Laden, a terrorist attack or some other maneuver that would thrust terrorism into the forefront of voters' minds.

"We certainly were concerned that an administration that had shown itself willing to do almost anything would do almost anything," he said. "We weren't planning around it. There were no meetings around an October surprise, but were there discussions? Certainly."

Teresa Heinz Kerry, the wife of the 2004 nominee, went so far as to tell a business group in Phoenix late in the campaign that she "wouldn't be surprised if [bin Laden] appeared in the next month."

In his first debate with President Bush that year, Kerry tried to confront the issue head-on, accusing the president of a "colossal error of judgment" in "taking his eye off" bin Laden with the invasion of Iraq.

But the fight against terrorism remained Bush's key strength, even with an electorate that had begun to sour on his stewardship of the economy and his conduct of the Iraq war.

Obama advisers insisted yesterday that the Democrats can win the terrorism argument this year, even if there is an attack.

"I think the American people have gotten sensitized to the politicization of the war on terror by the Republican Party," said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), an Obama adviser. "Republicans have gone to the well too often, and the American people are seeing through it."

Obama has already begun the process of building a profile on national security issues. Last week's appearance with former military officers came after he had talked tough about al-Qaeda and promised action against the group's sanctuaries in western Pakistan. He has also begun a shift to the political center, saying he would support a compromise bill to authorize warrantless wiretapping of terrorist suspects over the strenuous protests of civil libertarians and party liberals. The Senate will vote to break a Democratic filibuster of the measure today.

"If something like an October surprise would happen, it would remind people about many of the Bush administration failures, that Osama bin Laden is on the loose, that al-Qaeda is stronger, that we've not been successful in pursuing foreign policy objectives," said former congressman Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.), another former 9/11 Commission member and an Obama homeland security adviser. "And I think those are strikes in favor of our argument for change."

But the sensitivity is still there. Davis, saying he was speaking personally and not for the campaign, advised Obama to choose a seasoned foreign policy veteran with strong national security credentials as his running mate. He mentioned former senators Sam Nunn of Georgia and Bob Graham of Florida.

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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