Congressional Democrats are using the uproar over an Arab company's planned takeover of some U.S. port operations to paint Republicans as faltering on the GOP's signature issue — national security — and accuse them of ignoring port safety in the past.
Republicans, meanwhile, are distancing themselves from President Bush's steadfast support of a deal that voters largely oppose.
With both parties eyeing fall elections that will determine who controls Congress, some Republicans acknowledge that the port issue is a tough one for them.
"For all of us who are believers in our president, these are trying times," says Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican whose Florida district includes the Miami port.
"This ports issue has ricocheted around the country and made it to people's dinner tables like nothing I've ever seen," said Scott Reed, a GOP consultant. "It's now an out-of-control political problem."
Voicing concerns over terrorism, lawmakers from both parties have criticized the administration's decision to allow DP World, owned by the government of Dubai, to assume significant operations at six major U.S. ports. Lawmakers are considering legislation that could block that deal.
Democrats, hoping to capture majorities in the House and Senate, have seized on the deal and past Republican votes against port security money in hopes of making up ground in one area that they have trailed Republicans among voters — keeping the United States secure.
"The gap could shrink but I doubt very seriously they will eliminate it," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.
Republicans are largely reflecting their constituents' views rather than backing Bush on the DP World deal, "using the issue effectively as a wedge to put distance between themselves and an unpopular president," Sabato said.
Bush's popularity is nearing the lowest levels of his presidency with his approval rating dropping in one poll to 34 percent.
But some Republicans dismiss Democrats' attempts to claim the security issue.
"We're not going to let the Democrats get to the right of us on national security," promises Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the House Homeland Security Committee chairman who is fighting the DP World deal.
Democrats in Congress almost daily blame their GOP counterparts for security holes in the U.S. maritime industry.
They trot out votes that show the Republican-controlled House and Senate turned back more than a dozen Democratic efforts to secure millions of dollars more for port security since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"When it comes to protecting the ports, Republicans really do have a pre-9/11 mind-set," said Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind.
Among the votes:
—In 2003, House Republicans, on a procedural vote, agreed to kill a Democratic amendment that would have added $250 million for port security grants to a war spending package.
—Two years later, nearly all House Republicans voted against an alternative Homeland Security authorization bill offered by Democrats that called for an additional $400 million for port security.
—Senate Republicans stood together in 2003 to set aside a Democratic amendment that would have provided $120 million more for port cargo screening equipment.
—One year later, all but six Senate Republicans voted to reject a Democratic attempt to add $150 million for port security in a Homeland Security appropriations bill.
That "record of failure" presents "an important opportunity for Democrats to argue that they are the ones who have the right approach to protecting the country," maintains Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster.
House Republicans were put on record again last week on port security when Democrats tried to force a debate and vote on legislation that would require congressional approval of DP World's takeover. The effort failed. Only two Republicans voted with Democrats.
In defense, Republicans say Democrats always want to throw money at untested technology and that the GOP-led Congress has consistently given more money to port security than what the Bush administration has proposed.
Congress, they say, has provided $912 million for port security grants since 2001 — none of which the president had requested — as well as $1.3 billion for a program to help increase security of cargo shipped to the United States and for technology to screen cargo for radiation and inspect ports.
"No matter what we've done, the Democrats will always have an amendment to up that amount," said Ros-Lehtinen.