WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans are tapping into Americans' fears about Ebola in their latest attacks on the competence of the Obama administration, adding a darker and more emotional edge to their main argument of the 2014 elections.
Friday's appointment of an "Ebola czar" did nothing to slow the criticism. GOP candidates see more opportunities in public alarm over the disease than in continuing to bash President Barack Obama's signature health care law in the campaign's final two weeks.
A chief question for Obama is whether to restrict travel from three West Africa countries bearing Ebola's brunt. Scores of GOP candidates are demanding such restrictions. Several Democrats — citing polls showing wide public support — are joining them.
Obama isn't going along. He says that travel bans would encourage people from affected areas to circumvent the efforts and then hide their recent whereabouts rather than submit to monitoring on U.S. soil. A few prominent Republicans, such as surgeon and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and former Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, agree with Obama.
But other Republicans predict the pressure for action will become too great.
"Travel restrictions are coming," Rep. Billy Long of Missouri declared at a congressional hearing on Ebola this week.
Candidates in two of the nation's tightest Senate races left their states to attend the heavily covered hearing, a sign of Ebola's political importance.
Rep. Bruce Braley, Iowa's Democratic Senate nominee, touted an Iowa company that's working on an Ebola vaccine.
GOP Rep. Cory Gardner of Colorado rejected the contention by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that banning air travelers from West Africa would encourage people to enter the United States by methods harder to track. "That's like saying all children with chicken pox should stay in school so we know where they are," Gardner said.
His race against Democratic Sen. Mark Udall crystalizes the partisan divide on Ebola. In a recent debate, Udall said doctors and other health experts should decide whether to "close borders. ..Senators and congressmen shouldn't be making those decisions."
But Gardner called for "an immediate travel ban" from the affected areas. When asked if there was a medical justification, Gardner called current policy "an unacceptable danger," adding: "An overwhelming majority of the American people believe that we should put this in place."
A Washington Post-ABC News poll found two-thirds of Americans supporting restrictions on travel from the Ebola-affected regions.
Some Republican campaign consultants see a great opening for their final push to re-elect embattled governors and gain the six new Senate seats needed to control that chamber.
"Opposing a travel ban is an unsustainable political position," said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak of Texas. Democrats who stick with Obama, he said, "may want to update their resumes."
Some prominent Republicans, however, side with the president.
Former Sen. Frist said a travel ban "would be ineffective from a public and personal health perspective and would be grossly counterproductive to ensuring a cooperative, inclusive and closely aligned effort to eradicate the virus."
In a statement to The Associated Press, he said that "despite current fears," Ebola is not easily spread. He endorsed "comprehensive and targeted airport screening, like that implemented by the CDC."
In a separate exchange with AP, Mike Leavitt — a former Utah governor and then U.S. health secretary under President George W. Bush — said a travel ban is "intuitively attractive and seems so simple." But he said his agency intensely studied such tactics as the "bird flu" scare rose in 2005, and he found "lots of problems with it."
The chief Ebola-stricken countries — Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — have no direct flights to the United States. The CDC says about 150 persons from those countries enter the United States daily, usually from major European airports.
"Do we ban those flights?" Leavitt asked.
Obama on Thursday said West Africans determined to reach the United States might resort to "broken travel — essentially breaking up their trip so that they can hide the fact that they have been to one of these countries where there is a disease in place. And as a result, we may end up getting less information about who has the disease."
Nonetheless, dozens of Republican lawmakers, governors and candidates say non-U.S. citizens should be barred from entering the country if they've recently been in the Ebola-stricken areas.
Democrats in tight races are struggling with the issue.
Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas endorsed a travel ban for non-citizens. Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, after hedging, joined him Friday. So have Democratic Senate hopefuls Michelle Nunn in Georgia and Gary Peters in Michigan. All their GOP opponents support travel restrictions.
Potential Republican presidential candidates are jumping in, too. Those criticizing Obama's actions and calling for travel restrictions include Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar in Washington, Bill Barrow in Atlanta, Scott Bauer in Madison, Wisconsin, Tom Beaumont in Sioux City, Iowa, Andrew DeMillo and Kelly P. Kissel in Little Rock, Arkansas, Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan, Nicholas Riccardi in Denver and Gary Robertson in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report.