Terror issue may have lost luster for GOP

Since the horrifying attacks on America five years ago this Monday, Republicans have played the "terror'' card twice with great effect.

Portraying Democrats as soft on homeland security, the GOP retained control of Congress in the 2002 and 2004 elections and, also in 2004, got President Bush reelected.

With the president crisscrossing the country touting his administration's accomplishments in the war on terror and congressional leaders making homeland security a top priority, it's become clear that Republicans are going to the well a third time in 2006 hoping to turn back the Democrats' best shot at taking back at least one legislative chamber for the first time since they lost power a dozen years ago.

The strategy comes as no surprise, said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia.

"Terror and national security has worked twice for Republicans,'' he said. "Naturally, they want to try it one more time.''

But Democrats say it won't work in 2006 because Republicans have been in power for too long without getting the job done, either at home or abroad.

In an interview on CBS' Face the Nation a week ago, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean charged congressional Republicans with refusing to adequately fund port security. He said America's nuclear and chemical plants are no safer now than before 9/11.

Overseas, Dean pointed to Iran and North Korea as greater nuclear threats than ever, while Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden remains at large.

"They've been there for five years, these Republicans, and the question is, 'Are we safer now?' '' Dean said. "And the answer is, 'No.' ... I think that's going to be an issue.''

Sabato agreed that the Republicans could run out of steam with the terror issue this year. With Bush's approval ratings in the tank according to national polls, Sabato said 2006 is not 2004 and especially not 2002.

"President Bush is very unpopular today. The Iraq war is ongoing and very unpopular today,'' he said. "That was much less true in 2004, and in 2002, we just had Afghanistan, which was a war that was highly supported.''

Dean attributed the waning support for the war in Iraq on the American public realizing that it has nothing to do with the war on terror.

"The Democrats want a new direction,'' he said. "That means capturing or killing Osama bin Laden, focusing on the terrorists in northwest Pakistan. ... Staying the course for a failed strategy is not a good direction.''

But Bush said staying in Iraq is fighting the war on terror at its hottest spot and not a diversion, as Democrats have charged.

In a speech in Cobb County last Thursday, the president said terrorist leaders from bin Laden on down have openly stated that winning in Iraq is key to their strategy. He said that's why violent extremists willing to die for their cause have been streaming into the country to aid the Iraqi insurgency.

"The free world must succeed in Iraq,'' Bush said.

Bush described the war in Iraq in terms of America taking the offensive against terror to keep terrorists off balance so they can't mount another attack on the U.S. homeland.

"We will not be safe until these enemies are finally defeated,'' he said.

But Sabato said Americans aren't as likely to buy into such arguments at the polls this year as they were during the last two elections.

Dean said voters are more ready for change than at any time since 1994, the year that former U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia led the Republican charge that swept congressional Democrats out of power and elevated him to House speaker.

"People are dissatisfied and disgruntled and in a surly mood,'' Sabato said. "Because they're in a surly mood, they're much less likely to respond to ... charges about national security.''

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