The politics of fighting terror

As Bush calls for a national director of intelligence, Kerry is treading carefully.

The politics of terrorism have shot to the forefront, as both President Bush and his Democratic rival, Sen. John Kerry, grapple with a heightened terror threat aimed at the nation's financial centers.

Both men face the challenge of addressing a potentially grave situation without appearing to take craven political advantage of it. But with just three months before the Nov. 2 presidential election, the political dimension of anything either man says or does is impossible to ignore.

For Bush, the task is easier. As president, he holds the levers of power and can show leadership by taking action and using his bully pulpit to ease the public's jitters. Bush Monday endorsed two of the recommendations of the 9/11 commission, including the appointment of a national intelligence director and a national counterterrorism center, though he would not base them at the White House, as the commission had proposed. Polls have consistently shown Bush beating Kerry by a wide margin on terrorism - the only issue where Bush is ahead in a deadlocked race.

"We are a nation in danger," Bush said Monday in the Rose Garden. "The best way to protect the American homeland is to stay on the offense."

Bush embraced, with modifications, the bipartisan panel's most overarching recommendations in its 567-page report.

In asking Congress to create the position of an intelligence director, Bush said the director would not be based in the White House, a recommendation of the commission that some believe could politicize the post. Currently, the CIA director not only heads his own agency but also oversees the US intelligence community, which has grown to 15 agencies. But the director has neither budgetary authority nor day-to-day operational control of the other agencies.

Under the reorganization Bush is backing, the CIA would be managed by its own director, while the national intelligence director would assume the broader responsibility of leading the intelligence community government-wide.

As for the counterterrorism center, Bush said it would build on the anlytical work already being done by the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, which opened in 2003.

For Senator Kerry, the only course is to comment from the sidelines, and imply that Bush has made the country less safe since 9/11, without saying it outright. "The question is, are we as safe as we ought to be given the options available to us," Kerry said at a campaign event Monday at a firehouse in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Democrats have long blamed Bush for resisting establishment of a Department of Homeland Security and appointment of a 9/11 commission, which he ultimately embraced. They also argue that the US invasion of Iraq deflected attention and resources away from the battle against Al Qaeda, and has thus made America less safe.

Still, analysts say, Kerry faces a challenge in arguing to voters that they should throw out an incumbent president at a time of grave threat, and after nearly three years with no new attacks on American soil, regardless of whether Bush deserves credit for that or not.

"I don't know that there's much Kerry can do," says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University, noting that Kerry's positions on fighting terrorism are similar to Bush's. "On the other hand, clearly the 9/11 commission report has pushed Bush to make a statement of support in general of the commission's recommendations. So he can't be sitting ... that easy." Kerry embraced the commission's recommendations immediately after they were released on July 22.

Some analysts say that Kerry may be at less of a disadvantage over the terror issue than it may appear. Since Kerry is beating Bush on all other issues in the campaign - including central matters such as the economy and Iraq - Bush can't just rest on his perceived strength on national security.

"Whatever Bush's advantage is on national security, it is not going to be enough to overcome that kind of gap," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "Kerry's doing what he has to do - project an image of strength and come up with an acceptable program. Americans are very undemanding of challengers - they're deciding if they want to get rid of Bush or not."

The president Monday also faced the challenge of trying to insulate his proposal from politics as he recommended that a national director of intelligence (NDI) and counterterrorism center be established. The 9/11 commission proposed that those be based at the White House, but Bush disagreed.

"I don't think that the office should be in the White House, however. I think it should be a stand-alone group to better coordinate," he said. The president said he would be able to hire or fire the director, but "I don't think the person should be a member of my Cabinet."

John Kerry, addressing a crowd Monday in front of a firehouse in Michigan, sought to establish his own form of bully pulpit - "real" America, where presidential decisions are felt by average Americans on the economy, trade, and health insurance, as well as homeland security.

Speaking of the closing of firehouses, the Massachusetts senator said, "We're going to make a better set of budget choices."

The Kerry-Edwards campaign released also its campaign book, called "Our Plan for America: Stronger at home, Respected in the World." The book was to be unveiled Monday at campaign stops in Michigan and Florida.

Staff writers Liz Marlantes and Amanda Paulson contributed to this report, and material from the Associated Press was used.

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