GOP Banking on National Security for Another Election Victory

Pumped up by tough talk from President Bush's State of the Union address, Republicans are hoping for a hat trick — relying on national security credentials to win their third congressional election since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

But some wonder whether the winning campaign strategy used in the 2002 and 2004 races will be a third-time charm or a big-time bust.

"Clearly, Americans love golden oldies, but this golden oldie will have much more difficulty hitting the charts this time around," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Recent statements suggest that Republicans believe their ongoing effort to fight the War on Terror is among their strongest appeals to the public, and they are determined to use it to their advantage in upcoming months.

"At the core, we are dealing with two parties that have fundamentally different views on national security," White House Deputy Chief of Staff and campaign guru Karl Rove told the Republican National Committee's winter meeting in January.

"Republicans have a post-9/11 worldview and many Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview," Rove continued. "That doesn't make them unpatriotic — not at all. But it does make them wrong — deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong."

Despite record low approval numbers for the mostly-Republican Congress and President Bush on the direction of the nation, Republicans say that they will succeed in November primarily by reminding people that it is the trusted party when it comes to protecting Americans from the "new enemy."

"At the end of the day, peoples' security comes first, and when it comes down to who they want to defend them, it's a loser for Democrats," said Monty Warner, a Republican media strategist who calls Rove "a genius."

But not everyone believes that the message — one that worked in the midterm election 14 months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and again in the 2004 presidential election year – carries the same leverage in a political landscape less favorable to fighting the war.

"[National Security] is an advantage for Republicans, it's just that the advantage has been reduced somewhat due to the war in Iraq and the eavesdropping issue," said Sabato, referring to the National Security Agency's recent admission it had listened in without warrants on phone calls of individuals inside the United States with suspected Al Qaeda supporters outside the country.

Democrats like David Sirota, a former Capitol Hill aide and author of the forthcoming book, "Hostile Takeover," say Republicans are trying to distract the public from their failures, but will only result in highlighting them.

"I think the Republicans walk into a huge problem of having to defend a status quo national security policy that has resulted in huge casualties in Iraq and clearly illegal violations of Americans' personal freedoms," he said. "If Republicans are saying their strategy is to defend all of that – bring it on."

The White House has drawn fire for the NSA revelations, with critics asserting that the practice is illegal. Last week, the White House led an offensive in which it vigorously defended the program. Members of the administration are testifying about the issue in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Monday.

In a press conference on Jan. 26 before his State of the Union address, President Bush emphasized that he was using every tool necessary to keep America safe.

"We've got much work to do to protect the nation ... I'm going to do everything in my authority to protect the American people," he said, adding that the NSA surveillance program is "legally right." He reiterated his message in the Jan. 31 address to the nation, when he suggested that Sept. 11 could have been avoided if the government had been able to use such a surveillance program.

"The Democrats are just wrong on this," said Ed Goeas, Republican pollster for the Tarrance Group, who predicts neither surveillance, nor the war in Iraq will be a drag on the GOP in November. "The bottom line is, if the Democrats want to fight this campaign on the War on Terror and national defense, I say, 'Where do I send my check?'"

"The president is leading a campaign against the terrorists, the Democrats are leading a campaign against the president," added Republican National Committee spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt.

Democrats say they have no problem exposing flaws with the status quo — that's what elections are all about.

"They are going to use fear to try and win the next election," said Dave Johnson, founder of the Web log and a fellow at the Commonwealth Institute. "This Bush crowd is dividing us and terrifying us, setting us against each other an making us afraid, and doing it so they can win elections."

But Chuck Pena, senior fellow at the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, said Rove is smart to wage the campaign on the national security front since the issue often divides Democrats.

While the base continues to be comprised of activists against the war in Iraq, some notable Democratic senators like Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., have been more hawkish about Iraq and less willing to criticize the purpose and goals of being there.

"From Rove's perspective, he sees this as a winning issue not because Republicans have clear, overwhelming support for their positions, but because it has Democrats split on their position — it dilutes their voting power at the polls," said Pena.

Sirota acknowledges the party suffers from a lack of consensus on the war, but said Democrats cannot let the Republican Party define the current discourse or intimidate them on issues that are clearly hurting Republicans now, like the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal or alleged civil liberties violations.

"It's going to take a sustained and concerted effort on the surveillance issue to make it clear that the debate is about lawbreaking and personal civil liberties," he said. "[Republicans] are defending illegal behavior."

Republicans say the NSA issue is far from a slam-dunk for Democrats. A Jan. 12 FOX News poll found that 58 percent of Americans felt Bush should have the authority to pursue warrantless surveillance on suspected terrorists. An ABC/Washington Post poll released Jan. 30 showed 55 percent of Americans approve of such wiretapping and 43 disapproved.

"I think the American people understand the threat we still face," said Schmitt.

But Peter Beinart, editor of the New Republic, says the White House has used the War on Terror as a "partisan club" to whip voters into line at election time. He suggested voters may be less moved by the same Republican national security message than they are by the federal government encroaching on their civil liberties and other issues.

"For those reasons [Republicans] have an uphill battle," he said. "I think Democrats can say we can destroy the terrorists without giving up who we are. The whole reason we are fighting totalitarianism is for liberty."