Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- President Bush and his party seem to be succeeding in their efforts to define the strategic security issues that will likely decide the outcome of the 2006 midterm elections.

Nowhere is this more apparent than Bush's campaign offensive to warn Americans of the still-potent dangers of yet another terrorist attack on the United States and his implicit claim that Republicans are far better able to deal with that threat than the left-wing, antiwar leaders in the Democratic Party.

That offensive has moved the numbers in the GOP's direction, with the help of Democratic leaders whose national-security agenda, such as it is, seems opposed to every anti-terrorism program Bush has implemented in the ensuing war on terrorism: reauthorization of the Patriot Act, the electronic-surveillance efforts to intercept terrorist calls into the United States and now the tough -- but also humane -- interrogation practices that have foiled numerous terrorist plots against us.

Like the Democrats, Bush and the Republicans are trying to nationalize this election, too, but the contrast between how the two major parties look at the terrorism issue could not be sharper or more alarming.

Moreover, the available evidence suggests the GOP seems to be doing a more effective job of it, according to a recent survey of voters by independent pollster John Zogby.

Significantly, Zogby found that "voters planning on casting ballots for Republicans are more likely than those voting for Democrats to say they are casting their ballot based on national issues by a 79 percent to 69 percent margin."

And what issue will move the most voters? Zogby said, "Another positive development for Congressional Republicans is that one in four of their supporters -- 23 percent -- consider terrorism the top issue as they go to the polls, easily the top issue for those backing the GOP."

But among voters who say they will support the Democrats, "terrorism barely registers 4 percent," he said.

The White House is betting that the threat of terrorism, and the GOP's advantage on the core question of who can keep us safer, will trump the Democrats on Election Day. And with polls showing the Democrats are still getting failing grades on this key security issue, that's a fairly safe bet right now.

Public perceptions and defining your opponent are at the heart of good politics and effective campaigns, and the president has effectively driven the Democrats into a corner on their weakest issue: national security.

In Congress, Bush and his party (with a few dissenters) are perceived as fighting for a tougher interrogation-guidelines bill that will set clear, firm ground rules consistent with the Geneva Conventions, but one that does not hamstring our intelligence efforts to protect Americans.

I think Bush has similarly held the high ground on legislation to create military commissions that will ensure the delivery of swift but fair justice for the terrorists who will go to trial. The Democrats in this debate seem to be more concerned with protecting the civil liberties of terrorists than with convicting fanatic extremists who plotted to kill Americans.

All of this has helped Republicans narrow the once-substantial lead Democrats held in the generic voter-preference surveys. The latest Zogby poll shows the GOP trailing Democrats by three points -- well within the margin of error.

Zogby credited the GOP's political turnaround to "the president's focus on the war on terrorism, a rebound among his own base" and the Democrats' failure to lay out a clear plan of their own on "how are we going to get out of Iraq and what they would do about terrorism that's better than the Republicans."

"They are not giving their Democratic base what it needs to hear on those issues. Republicans are severely wounded. The Democrats should be crushing them, and they are not," he told me.

Other pollsters, such as Opinion Dynamics and Rasmussen, are picking up a similar tightening in the voter-preference surveys, as reports coming in from political reporters in the field say they sense a comeback by the GOP as voters begin focusing more on the candidates and issues that concern them.v Prior to Labor Day, top election forecasters were predicting that an anti-Bush, anti-Republican wave would sweep the Democrats back into majority control of the House. But, after studying his numbers coming in from the states, Zogby told me, "I don't see the landslide that others are seeing. That doesn't mean it can't materialize, but, as of today, it's not happening and this is September."

In the meantime, the president intends to campaign hard for his party over the next seven weeks, perhaps two dozen House seats once targeted by the Democrats are now out of play, and there are growing doubts that the Democrats have what it takes to regain power.

"I'm reluctant to predict a Democratic takeover because I appreciate the Republicans' success," elections analyst Rhodes Cook told me this week. "They know how to win of late, and the Democrats don't."


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.



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