Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- White House strategist Karl Rove has given Democrats advance notice that the central issue in this year's midterm elections will be who can keep America safe from terrorism. Barring some new, unforeseen issue that will trump all others, Rove is betting that the question of which party can be trusted to protect Americans from Al Qaeda will remain one of the chief national concerns this year and, polls show, the Republicans' strongest issue.

With a new Iraqi coalition government being formed following last month's elections, and a fast-growing, better-trained Iraqi security force raising the hope of some U.S. troop drawdowns later this year, you might think that the terrorist threat would be receding as a campaign issue. But the Democrats have unwittingly been playing into Republican hands by making national security a much larger issue than it might ordinarily be because of their fierce opposition to renewal of key provisions in the anti-terrorist Patriot Act, an irresponsible boast by Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid that Democrats had "killed the Patriot Act," and a full-blown, all-out attack on President Bush for his aggressive use of advanced satellite spy technology to listen in on what the terrorists are plotting next. Rove spelled out the GOP's expected campaign strategy in an address at the Republican National Committee's midwinter meeting last week that should have left no doubt that the Democrats' long perceived weakness on national security grounds will again be raised, challenged and debated in the run-up to the November congressional elections.

Terrorist madman and mastermind Osama bin Laden helped the GOP's cause last week, too, when he released a recorded statement that warned of another impending attack on America. It was a blood-chilling reminder that whatever progress we've made in Iraq, Al Qaeda terrorists are plotting to strike again to kill as many of us as they can. The question now, Rove said last week, is which party do Americans trust to use every tool and weapon at our disposal to keep Al Qaeda from achieving its deadly objectives? The GOP's grand strategist laid out his party's answer to that question in four succinct, well-targeted sentences that will be at the center of the 2006 elections: "At the core, we are dealing with two parties that have fundamentally different views on national security. Republicans have a post-9/11 worldview -- and many Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview. That doesn't make them unpatriotic, not at all. But it does make them wrong -- deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong," he said.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.