Tricky enterprise of terror's political fallout

The blame game is already a campaign-2002 backdrop, as Bush shuns calls for 9/11 review.

Despite the insistence of both Democrats and Republicans that the war on terror should remain above partisan concerns, recent events have made clear that the entire matter is inextricable from politics.

With Democrats continuing to call for an independent commission to look into the administration's handling of warnings prior to Sept. 11 – and Republicans responding that such an investigation could jeopardize national security – the issue may in fact become a significant backdrop to this year's campaign.

Yet it also poses enormous risks for both sides, as the dizzying shifts of the past week demonstrate.

Already, Democrats have learned the dangers of overplaying their hand. After polls showed that most Americans viewed last week's charges of "what did the president know and when did he know it" as blatantly political, Democrats quickly retreated to more moderate questions about agencies' failure to connect pieces of information.

The White House, meanwhile, is facing persistent questions about whether the recent parade of officials offering dire predictions about the likelihood of another attack was merely an effort to deflect criticism.

Strategists from both parties agree that if either party is perceived as manipulating the situation for political gain, it could have dire consequences.

"Nobody wants this whole terrorism thing to turn into a political charade – and if it appears that way, the party that's seen as politicizing terrorism will take a hit," says GOP pollster Frank Luntz.

IN the short term, analysts say neither party has gained clear advantage from the past week's frenzy. "The last 10 days or so are a tie, with neither side winning any points against the other, and to some degree, both sides mishandling it," says independent pollster John Zogby.

"It's a tornado that more or less left everything where it was," agrees analyst Bill Schneider.

But the long-term impact is harder to predict, in part because it depends on factors such as whether congressional investigators uncover additional information about intelligence failures, and whether the country experiences another attack.

Mr. Schneider believes the fear of appearing too political may lead Democrats to back off the issue.

Republicans have already "scared the Democrats off," he says. "The Democrats have very quickly and advisedly shifted strategy and said, 'This is not getting us anywhere. We are not going to fight this campaign. We are not going to make the war an issue.' "

Some party strategists suggest that the war on terror won't impact the fall elections at all – even if the nation is in a heightened state of alert, as it's been for the past week. Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg says that while Americans look to the president to deal with national security, they want Congress to focus on domestic issues such as healthcare and the economy. "It's like two sides of the brain," he says. "There's almost a division of labor: Let the president deal with security issues, but thank God there's someone else dealing with these domestic issues."

But Mr. Luntz disagrees, saying, "National security will be in the backs of the minds of every voter" in the fall. This may work to Republican advantage, if voters want to express their support for the president. But that's assuming Americans still approve of the job President Bush is doing in handling terrorism.

SO FAR, of course, Mr. Bush has reaped nothing but political benefit from the war on terror, achieving record-high approval ratings that are still in the mid-70s. But the recent firestorm surrounding missed warnings prior to Sept. 11 makes clear that his administration may also be held accountable for past mistakes – as well as future ones.

Analysts say that although another terrorist incident could cause the public to rally around the president even more, it's equally likely that Americans might blame the administration for failing to prevent it. Indeed, the administration's recent emphasis on the "inevitability" of another attack – an unusually pessimistic stance – may in part be an effort to manage expectations.

"I think if there were another terrorist attack, the American people would say: 'Look, we were sucker-punched the first time. But I thought you were protecting us,' " says Mr. Zogby. "And so, if I were Bush, I would do exactly what he's doing – try to develop some realistic expectations."

It's not unreasonable to want to lower expectations, of course – since preventing future attacks may indeed be impossible. But it could prove a difficult task.

"The dynamics have changed," says Richard Harwood, president of the Harwood Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. "People want the government to do everything possible to protect us."

• Francine Kiefer and Abraham McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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