WASHINGTON -- Prevention of the plan to destroy 10 jetliners bound for America has sharply boosted President Bush's approval scores for his handling of the war on terrorism and homeland security.
This week's improved poll numbers was a political justification of Bush's laser-like focus on the terrorist threat that his Democratic critics dismissed as fear mongering and campaign hysteria meant to frighten Americans into voting Republican.
But the Islamic bomb plot, uncovered by British intelligence, with the assistance of other countries, including Pakistan and the United States, was a chilling reminder the terrorist war is real and the jihadists' desire to kill as many of us as they can remains a central issue in the midterm elections. It was also a grim reminder that events in the next three months could swing this election in one direction or another. What if yet another plot, this time right here in the United States, is disclosed? What if Osama bin Laden is killed or captured?
Reporting the poll's findings, Newsweek's Marcus Mabry noted, "The most murderous terror plot to be publicly exposed since 9/11 disrupted more than air travel. It roiled public opinion, too."
The poll of more than 1,000 Americans still showed Bush's problems across a range of issues, including the Iraq war, but it also showed "a significant boost in voters' opinions of his handling of the terror threat." A hefty 55 percent majority now approve of Bush's handling of the war on terrorism and protecting homeland security, a big 11-point boost since May (40 percent still disapprove).
It also exposed the correlation between terrorist threats and the president's approval ratings. In the ebb and flow of competing issues in any election, voters sometimes need reminding when key issues fade or are shoved aside by other news events.
The sinister revelation that terrorists were planning to blow up passenger planes flying from Great Britain to the United States, and possibly from here to there, too, knocked competing stories -- from Israel's battle with Hezbollah to the war in Iraq -- off the nation's front pages.
Not only was the terrorist threat potent again and closer to home, but Americans were reminded of the steps Bush and the Republican Congress took to uncover and thwart that threat: the reauthorization of the Patriot Act (that Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid tried to kill), the surveillance of terrorist phone calls to sleeper cells in this country and the fed's monitoring of bank accounts used to finance terrorist plots here and abroad. Democrats and their left-wing, anti-war allies in the blogosphere (who have been condemning the administration's global surveillance techniques) seemed strangely silent on the issue this past week. I can see why.
The White House and Republicans are intent on making the threat of another terrorist attack the pivotal issue in an election that could turn on a single question: Which party will keep us safe?
If there was a common denominator in the Democrats' line of attacks this year, it was that Bush's policies in the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism have made us less safe. But the Democrats were losing that argument this week, as they have been losing it throughout most of this year.
The Newsweek poll found that 44 percent of Americans said they trusted Republicans "to do a better job handling the war on terrorism than the Democrats, versus 39 percent who say they trust the Democrats more."
Still, generic congressional polls show a majority of voters will vote Democratic in November, and Democrats are trying to make Bush and the Iraq war the central theme in their campaigns. But if the election turns on terrorism and who will keep us safe, the numbers could turn in the GOP's favor.
Last week's bomb-plot story, however, could fade and with it, possibly, concern about the ever-present terrorist threat. But high-level Republican strategists tell me they aren't going to let that happen. Bush and the GOP are planning to campaign on the issue aggressively from now until Election Day to keep it in front of the electorate. White House political strategist Karl Rove has made that decision clear to party leaders and to Republican candidates. It is the GOP's strongest national-security issue and clearly the Democrats' weakest. The only other question is, will the terrorists reignite this issue in the weeks and months to come? The chances are they will and, if so, the issue will come back to the fore with a vengeance.
In the 2004 presidential campaign, a New Jersey woman told a reporter she had always voted Democratic, but this time she was voting for Bush because of the terrorist threat. "There's no maybe in his voice," she said.
Her concern about the terrorists who threaten our way of life and about the Democrats' perceived softness on this matter could be the pivotal issue yet again when voters go to the polls on Nov. 7.