By TOM RAUM
President Bush is casting the war on global terrorism as the central issue of the midterm elections. But it’s a risky political strategy.
The approach carries reminders of failures in Iraq, prisoner treatment at Guantanamo Bay, warrantless wiretapping at home and Osama bin Laden’s endurance abroad.
"We learned the lessons of Sept. 11," Bush said Thursday in the latest in a new round of speeches on the subject. "We’re working to connect the dots to stop the terrorists from hurting America again."
GOP strategists hope the new focus, including efforts by Republicans in Congress to press for votes on a string of anti-terror initiatives, will burnish Bush’s image as commander in chief in responding to the 9/11 attacks and help to divert attention from Iraq.
But Democrats were quick to portray the president’s recent statements — including his acknowledgment Wednesday of a secret CIA prison system and the movement of 14 high-profile detainees to Guantanamo — as an admission of failure.
"Republicans have ignored the lessons of 9/11 and failed to make America as safe as we can and should be," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said on Thursday. "They want to stay the course in the face of failure. We won’t. We’ll change course in Iraq."
With the electorate in a sour and generally anti-incumbent mood, majority-party Republicans have little choice but to run on the war against terrorism, suggest activists in both parties.
Frank Luntz, a GOP pollster and strategist who helped orchestrate the "Contract with America" campaign in 1994 that helped Republicans seize control of both House and Senate, sees parallels between then and now — but in reverse since Republicans now control both chambers.
"There is a deep desire for change and a consistent widespread rejection of the status quo," he said.
Republicans have little choice but to make the war on terrorism their central theme, Luntz said. "They have to, because this is their one area of strength. This goes to the core difference between the two parties and their visions. If you can’t communicate a core difference, what can you do?"
Democratic pollster Mark Mellman noted that the one-time commanding Republican edge over Democrats on national security "has been dramatically diminished."
"The conclusion of a lot of polls is that people in this country do not feel safer and they feel that George Bush’s policies in Iraq and elsewhere have increased the likelihood of terrorism against the United States, not decreased it," Mellman said.
Six in 10 in a recent AP-Ipsos poll said there will be more terrorism in the United States because the U.S. went to war in Iraq. A CNN poll published earlier this week asked the public if the war in Iraq was part of the war on terrorism. Fifty-three percent said "no;" 45 percent said "yes."
With two months to go before congressional elections that will determine whether Republicans can extend their control of Congress, Americans seem concerned over the threat of terrorism but ambivalent over assigning credit — or blame — to efforts to contain it.
"We’re in a lot better shape than where we were before," Grant Miller, 28, a car salesman and Democrat said over lunch in Crestwood, Ky.
Fellow Kentuckian Tim Cox, 46, gave the president solid marks for combatting terrorism, which he said was his biggest present concern. "We’re doing what we should be," the factory worker said while stopping by the post office in PeeWee Valley, Ky.
Frank Satterly, 45, a Republican who works as a meat cutter in New Albany, Ind., called it "pretty darn good" that there have been no further terrorist attacks in the U.S. in the past five years. However, he said, no matter who is president, "We’re still going to have a terror threat. This is not going away."
Heavy emphasis on the war against terrorism could backfire for the Republicans, particularly if things get worse in Iraq, southern Lebanon, or in dealings with Iran.
But Democrats could also overplay their hand by being too harshly critical of the president.
"At any point, there could be a rally-around-the-president effect if there’s another terrorist incident, another big arrest, or if — God forbid — we’re attacked again," said James Thurber, a political scientist at American University.
Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press