With each passing day in the run-up to the fall midterm elections, the political dimension of every news point gains in significance. And so, as Republicans struggle to keep control of Congress, each new headline that relates some sign of progress in battling terrorism – President Bush's strongest issue – is a boon.
It's not that the US public pays close attention to every detail. But Tuesday's announcement that British police had arrested one more terror suspect in the alleged airliner plot served as a reminder that the threat is still out there, that authorities are still on the case, and that no attacks have taken place on US soil in nearly five years.
Mr. Bush's political team, led by Karl Rove, has made clear that for the third straight election, it will play the national security issue hard. The strategy worked in 2002 and 2004, but with the Iraq war – a central front in the war on terror – and Bush himself persistently unpopular, prospects for 2006 remain uncertain. And this time, the Democrats are not ceding the national-security mantle to the GOP.
In the end, voters' focus in November could depend on events well beyond any politician's control.
"The war on terror is still an advantage for Bush, but it's very much an open question whether it will be enough to overcome Iraq," says Jack Pitney, a political analyst at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., and a former Republican aide. "If things in Iraq get worse, it's hard to see anything that would balance off the damage."
Polls have been mixed as to whether Bush gained in the public's eye after the announcement last week that a close US ally, Britain, had foiled a plot to hijack up to 10 transatlantic airliners. A Newsweek poll taken Aug. 10-11 showed 55 percent of Americans supporting Bush's handling of terrorism, an 11-point jump from May. A CBS News poll taken Aug. 11-13 showed no change in Bush's terrorism numbers compared to late July, holding steady at 51 percent. It was a five-point bump from May.
Whether or not the terrorism/national security issue can help Bush and his party in November, it's been clear for weeks that Bush is better off avoiding certain congressional districts. In many of the closest House races, Republican incumbents are openly distancing themselves from Bush on Iraq and on wedge issues such as stem-cell research – with the party leadership's blessing.
"We've been given permission to approach [the election] our way," says Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership. "They have decided to allow our members to run the campaign that they need to run to get elected."
Rep. Jim Gerlach (R) of Pennsylvania, one of the Democrats' top targets, is "running a lot of ads – I don't agree with the president on this and this," says Ms. Resnick.
Bush traveled to battleground state Pennsylvania Wednesday to talk up the economy and help struggling Republican gubernatorial challenger Lynn Swann raise money, but he stuck to GOP-friendly parts of the state, York and Lancaster. Still, the state also features one of the Senate's most endangered incumbents – Rick Santorum – and Bush's visit to Pennsylvania will get media coverage in suburban areas, where Senator Santorum needs votes.
"The bottom line is folks in Philadelphia [oppose] Bush, whether he's in the market or not," says Ken Smukler, a political strategist who used to advise Democrats. "But he may get more Republicans in York and Harrisburg and Lancaster to come and vote, so on balance, it's a good move."
In appearing with Mr. Swann, a former star wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers who is African-American, Bush also may be seeking to mend fences with the black community, after the damage of hurricane Katrina. Bush has also appeared recently with Ohio's GOP African-American candidate for governor, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell.
Another high-profile black candidate, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) of Maryland, running for the Senate, admitted last month that it probably wouldn't be a good idea for Bush to campaign for him in blue Maryland. In an embarrassing episode, Mr. Steele made unflattering comments about Bush and the Republican Party on background to journalists as a "Republican Senate candidate," but soon owned up to the remarks. He spoke of wearing his Republican "R" as a "scarlet letter."
Maybe Steele's gaffe was a calculated risk, as he runs upstream in a Democratic state. But the incident fed into the developing story line that Republicans in tight races more often than not are steering clear of the president.
Bush and his political team, for their part, seem vigilant in their countdown to Nov. 7 not to make the GOP's challenge any more difficult than it already is. The president took his shortest summer vacation since taking office, keeping himself to just 10 days at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and limiting the risk that may have come with too many shots of him clearing brush and bike-riding while a new war raged in the Middle East – on top of all his other urgent challenges. His slow reaction to hurricane Katrina a year ago marked a devastating slide in his public approval rating, still in the mid-to-high 30s, from which he has not recovered.