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For voters, terror is no longer a top issue
San Francisco Chronicle


September 11, 2008

Seven years ago this week, the roar of exploding planes and the spectacle of collapsing buildings riveted the nation's attention on a single topic -- terrorism -- and in the terrible aftermath, it seemed that focus would never waver.

But it has. Just 2 percent of Americans identified terrorism as their nation's top problem in a Gallup survey in early August -- the lowest level since the 2001 attacks. And in new poll results released Wednesday, just 38 percent of respondents said they were at least somewhat worried that they or their families would become victims of terrorism -- a nine-point drop since the question was asked last year and the lowest level since mid-2005.

"The majority of Americans are now not fearful of terrorist attack," said Frank Newport, Gallup's editor in chief. "Americans do not report to us that terrorism is the top issue for them in this election. It is the economy."

In a separate question in the most recent poll, when asked to pick from a short list of issues the one that would be most important in deciding their vote for president, about 42 percent of people picked the economy, Newport said. Just 12 percent picked terrorism, putting it in a tie with the Iraq war, health care and energy.

The poll results emerge in the heat of a presidential campaign that some pundits once suggested would pivot on the issue of terrorism. But these days, John McCain and Barack Obama are more likely to be talking about the economy, energy policy or something other than terrorism.

Of course, many groups warn that the terrorism is still a grave threat. A new report from the bipartisan Partnership for a Secure America released Wednesday argues that the United States is still "dangerously vulnerable" to terrorist attack, and a report by the American Security Project, a think tank chaired by former Sen. Gary Hart, concluded Wednesday that "the United States is not winning the 'war on terror.' "

Yet while terrorism was identified by nearly half of Americans after the Sept. 11 attacks as the nation's leading problem, the issue has been gradually slipping ever since, resurging only slightly after each new attack overseas or a fresh terror alert at home before fading again.

"The longer the period of time since the event and the current time, in the absence of any continuing provoking activity, one sees a decline," said Larry Beutler, director of the National Center on Disaster Psychology and Terrorism in Palo Alto. "In other words, people quit worrying."

Yet it's unlikely the current candidates will stop presenting terrorism as a pressing danger, said John Mueller, professor of political science at Ohio State University and author of the book "Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them."

Failure to display a tough stance against terrorism by any politician can be a career-ender if an attack should actually happen during a campaign, Mueller noted. But taking a firm stand on the issue carries little political risk.

Both Obama and McCain have detailed plans for improved homeland security and have mentioned terrorism in recent speeches. And today, the candidates will observe the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks in a joint visit to the World Trade Center.

Among voters, the issue could resurge in a number of ways, said Gallup's Newport. An act of terrorism during the campaign would quickly refocus attention on it. Or a candidate seen by voters as more competent to deal with terrorism could decide to make it an issue, Newport said. At the moment, McCain has a 55 percent to 38 percent advantage over Obama in the eyes of the voters asked who would better handle terrorism, he said.

Change will come not because of public opinion, Mueller said, but because of public cost.

"We're spending $50 (billion)-$60 billion on the Department of Homeland Security," he said. "It's a lot of money, and there's beginning to be a certain amount of rumbling."


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