WASHINGTON – Republicans and Democrats clashed over the War on Terror on Thursday within hours of the disclosure of a thwarted terrorist plot in Britain, each side accusing the other of doing too little to deter the threat of attack.
"We must implement the strong recommendations of the independent 9/11 commission to improve airport security screening at checkpoints," said House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, stressing one of the party's principal campaign-year promises in its drive to gain control of Congress.
Ohio Republicans said the Democratic candidate for the Senate, Rep. Sherrod Brown, had voted against money "for the very types of programs that helped the British thwart these vicious attacks."
"I don't question his patriotism, but the fact is if Sherrod Brown had his way, America would be less safe," said Bob Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party.
Brown, who is challenging Republican Sen. Mike DeWine, mentioned the billions spent on the Iraq war and said the thwarted attacks "underscore the need to refocus our resources on fighting the War on Terror."
The charges served as a reminder that with midterm elections less than three months away, not even an alleged attack to blow up passenger planes was off-limits to politics.
Throughout the day, the accusations grew more heated with Republicans and Democrats criticizing each other for using the day's events for political gain.
To be sure, both sides are seeking political advantage on national security. Voters will choose a new Congress Nov. 7, and polls show the public favoring Democratic control of Congress over Republicans who have been in power for a dozen years.
Additionally, recent polls have found that the Republican edge on terrorism and protecting the country has eroded over the past few months.
An Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted this week — but before news of the foiled terror plot — found that 40 percent approved of President Bush's performance on foreign policy and terrorism, down slightly from 44 percent in July. The percentage was still higher than the number of Americans who approve of his handling of Iraq, the economy and domestic issues.
The disclosure Thursday that British officials disrupted terrorists' plans to blow up aircraft heading to the U.S. gave both Republicans and Democrats an opportunity to emphasize their positions on national security — and highlight the differences facing voters.
"Freedom is never free, and we must never be complacent in defending it," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said. Echoing the GOP's election-year message, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., added: "We must be on alert so that our nation does not suffer another attack like 9/11."
"As a result of mismanagement and the wrong funding priorities, we are not as safe as we should be," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada countered. Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, added: "This is a stark reminder that the war on terrorism is global, and extends far beyond Iraq to our very shores."
Not all Democrats echoed their leaders' refrain.
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who intends to run as an independent after losing his Democratic primary to anti-war challenger Ned Lamont, said the foiled plot "should serve as the latest, most serious evidence that we are in a war against a brutal enemy that intends to attack us over and over again in the most indiscriminate way."
Lamont said the Bush administration has been preoccupied with Iraq while national security and efforts to curb terrorism have suffered. "We need to change course, and that means standing up to this administration and fighting for our security in a rational, serious way," he said.
In 2002 and 2004, the GOP sought to make the case that there hasn't been an attack on U.S. soil since 2001 because the Bush administration and Republicans have been diligent on national security. The GOP portrayed Democrats as weak on the issue and suggested that Democratic rule could endanger the country.
In a sign that the issues will reverberate beyond this fall, potential 2008 presidential candidates weighed in on the scheme.
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's office said he will activate the National Guard to help with security at Logan International Airport for the first time since the 2001 attacks. And, New York Gov. George Pataki, also a Republican, said the disrupted terror operation "underscores the need for continued vigilance, intelligence gathering and cooperation among law enforcement agencies and the public."