Democratic hopefuls seek traction on issue of security

Bob Graham joins voices saying Bush is failing to safeguard the homeland.

As Democratic presidential hopefuls position themselves against President Bush - and each other - many are directly challenging the president's record in the realm where Americans see him as strongest: national security.

Although the end of the war in Iraq and the lowering of the terror-threat level at home are already making security concerns recede, many Democrats are actually ramping up their attacks on the issue, accusing the president of not doing enough to keep the nation safe - and even of not being tough enough in the war on terror.

This week, for example, Sen. John Kerry released a statement urging the White House to crack down on possible money laundering for terrorist groups in Syria and Lebanon. Sen. Joseph Lieberman held an event with firefighters in Cleveland, accusing the administration of not fully funding first responders.

And the Democrat who's perhaps been most critical of the president's conduct in the war on terror, Sen. Bob Graham, officially joined the presidential race on Tuesday with a speech charging that the administration has ignored homeland security "in all but name."

To Republicans, and even some Demo-crats, such attacks seem unlikely to stick, given the administration's recent success in Iraq and the fact that there has not been another terrorist attack at home. Most analysts agree Democrats are more likely to make inroads on the domestic front, where polls show Bush as more vulnerable.

Yet Democrats learned in the 2002 elections that agreeing with Bush on national security and attacking him on domestic issues are not, on their own, winning strategies. To have any hope of winning back the White House, many argue, they must shrink the gap with Republicans on national security - a gap that, in some polls, stretches to 30 points - by relentlessly pointing out Bush's failures and selling their own ideas.

"We have got to be assertive in pointing out what the truth is of the various threats that face America, and how well this administration has responded to these threats," says Senator Graham in an interview. "Because of the priorities of the current administration, the American people have not been made more secure against terrorist attacks."

The issue of homeland security may in fact offer Democrats opportunities to gain ground. Indeed, as Democrats point out, the idea of a department of homeland security was originally proposed by Senator Lieberman, and resisted by the administration.

In some ways, analysts say, protecting the homeland ties in naturally with other domestic issues where Democrats are strong: Candidates can argue for revamping the healthcare system, for example, citing hospitals' role in responding to attacks.

The Democratic candidates in Congress have almost all introduced bills that would strengthen some aspect of homeland security. Senators Graham and Kerry have pushed to beef up security at the nation's ports and airports. Sen. John Edwards has called for the creation of a new homeland intelligence agency. Nearly all the candidates have been arguing that first responders need more federal funding.

Some Democrats, such as Graham, are even extending their criticism to US conduct abroad. Graham is campaigning almost to the right of Bush on security. The former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee voted against the Iraq resolution, he says, not because he opposed giving Bush authority to attack Iraq, but because he felt it didn't go far enough in leaving him leeway to deal with other threats. He contends that the US is just as vulnerable as it was in September 2001.

Of course, if nothing else happens in the way of terrorist activity, it may be difficult for Democrats to argue that Bush is not keeping the nation safe. But Democrats can still benefit by pointing out lapses on security, argues Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, who has advised Kerry. "They show that they are taking these threats seriously, and have creative ideas for how to make Americans safer," he says. "That's a political priority for a party that is at a disadvantage on security issues."

Some analysts say views on security are still evolving - and will largely depend on what happens in the next year and a half. "While right now, Bush has a very strong standing on homeland security ..., I don't think it's a settled issue," says Jeremy Rosner, a Democratic pollster.

Still, Republican analysts see Bush as virtually unassailable on security, arguing that the public not only approves of his performance, but trusts him personally, with a faith that's hard to shake. "People think Bush is handling it well," says GOP pollster David Winston. "And bringing up the question of whether he's doing all that's needed is just not believable."

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