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Bush set to campaign on security platform

Julie Hirschfeld Davis / Baltimore Sun | September 30 2006

Freshly armed with a victory on trials for terrorism suspects, President Bush is hitting the road to press his argument that Democrats are dangerously weak on national security.

Bush has won few of the priorities he laid out for Congress this year, coming away without the lion's share of the federal spending measures he sought or a measure authorizing his NSA warrantless surveillance program. Broad immigration reform, his top domestic priority, collapsed under the weight of virulent conservative opposition.

But Bush's determination to spotlight security - and to drown out criticism of the Iraq war - gives Republicans something positive to trumpet in tight re-election campaigns, analysts and strategists said. What's less clear, they added, is whether that will be enough to keep both houses of Congress in Republican hands.

"We're walking out of here on a security platform that's stronger than a lot of people wanted," said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate.

Passage of the measure on tribunals for detained terror suspects, coupled with a $448 billion defense spending bill, a border fence bill and more funds for guarding the nation's ports, amounts to "a boatload of security" that Republicans can point to as they go home to campaign, Stewart added.

That was Bush's goal, his aides said, promising that the president would help draw sharp distinctions between Republicans and Democrats on terrorism.

Bush travels to Reno, Nev., next week to begin a three-day campaign fundraising sweep that will also take him to California, Arizona and Colorado.

He indirectly criticized Democrats yesterday in a speech to retired military officers, saying that their contention that the war has made the country less safe "buys into the enemy's propaganda."

"You do not create terrorism by fighting terrorism," Bush said in a less strident reprise of a recent campaign speech in which he called Democrats "the party of cut and run."

Some Republicans, visibly nervous about the outcome of the November contests, said Bush's difficulties in winning passage of the detainee measure - which was mired in party infighting - threatened to undermine whatever advantage the president's party had on the issue.

But with recent polls showing the president's popularity on the rise, some said Bush has an opportunity to burnish his image and boost his party's chances in the five weeks until the election.

"The president is rehabbing himself," said Republican Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia. With Congress gone, Bush "has the big microphone again, and he'll be talking about military commissions, talking about security. That could improve things."

Whether it will be enough, Davis added, is "the $64,000 question."

Less of a benefit
There has been some evidence that Bush no longer benefits from the terrorism issue, analysts said. Fellow Republicans opposed elements of his terror tribunal and surveillance proposals, and recent polls show that Americans increasingly view Iraq as separate from the fight against terrorism.
Partisan bickering last week over a leaked National Intelligence Estimate, which said the Iraq war had helped spread terrorism, deflected attention away from the White House plan to focus on combating terrorism.

"This has not been a slam-dunk month, as the president hoped or expected," said Steven E. Schier, a Carleton College political scientist. "It's going to be one of the major political challenges of his presidency to get an election result that maintains his level of influence, and what we've seen in the last few months is that even that level of influence isn't very high anymore."

Democrats, eyeing their best chance in years to wrest control of at least one chamber of Congress, have fodder for their argument about a "do-nothing," Republican-controlled Congress. Among the issues that Democrats accuse Bush of ignoring are raising the minimum wage and enacting the recommendations of the independent 9/11 commission.

"Not only are they a do-nothing Congress; they're a make-matters-worse Congress," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California.

Most Democrats argued that the detainee measure was designed more to goad them into a politically distasteful vote, rather than creating a workable way of interrogating and trying terrorists. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California predicted that the strategy would turn voters off.

"Republicans have decided that they're going to find a way to say Democrats are soft on terror, and they're using a 'no' vote on [the detainee measure] to do that," Feinstein said. "Voters see this partisanship, and they say, 'A pox on both your houses.'"
Even some Republicans worry that the emphasis on security won't be enough to placate voters.


"This has been a Congress which has not fulfilled many of the expectations. ... We have not addressed the big issues," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican.

Bush's focus on terrorism could backfire if voters feel he has neglected other important issues, such as creating a new immigration and guest-worker system, bringing spending under control and overhauling Social Security, Hagel added.

'A good September'
But others said that winning approval of the detainee plan, which Bush framed as his top priority, could help discredit the charge that lawmakers' performance has been lackluster.
"This is not a do-nothing Congress, it's more of a gridlocked Congress. You can expend an awful lot of energy going nowhere, and I think that's what they've done," said Michael Franc of the Heritage Foundation.

For all the intraparty discord, Republicans "are now happily with the president on security issues," he added. "Republicans, in a very public way, have worked out their differences on security. That allows them to leave [Washington] with a lot of enthusiasm."

"In an election year, you always take a good September over a good July," said Republican Rep. Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina. "But you'd much prefer a good October over all of that."

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