By MARC SANDALOW
San Francisco Chronicle
October 11, 2006
One month before Election Day, with the GOP mired in a congressional sex scandal, the emergence of a new global threat and a renewed focus on national security seems to play right into a Republican strength with an issue that has secured their national majority the past two elections.
"Let me put it this way," White House press secretary Tony Snow said Tuesday from the briefing-room podium. "We're perfectly happy to have national security be front and center in this election, period."
But in a sign of the difficult political terrain that threatens the GOP majority in the House and Senate, Democrats are raising the issue on the campaign trail at least as vocally as their Republican counterparts, declaring the news from North Korea another failure of President Bush's foreign policy.
Democrats, playing off public disapproval of the war in Iraq and of the president, are seizing the opportunity to argue that North Korea, Iran and Iraq pose a greater threat today than they did when Bush identified them as an "axis of evil" in his 2003 State of the Union address.
As weapons experts try to sort out whether Monday morning's underground blast was evidence of North Korea's nuclear capacity, political analysts in the United States are puzzling over whether Democrats might have grabbed a national-security edge going into the final month of the campaign.
"Iraq has poisoned the well to such an extent that terrorism hasn't worked as well as it has in recent elections," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center and director of the nonpartisan organization's Global Attitudes Project.
"Obviously, North Korea is a threat, and there is always a tendency to rally around the president," Kohut added. "Whether that translates into a more positive view of President Bush is a little hard to tell right now."
With control of Congress at stake, and national security likely to dominate the 2008 presidential campaign, leaders of both parties have been quick to use the development as a sign of the other side's weakness.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a likely GOP candidate for president, took a swipe at New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a possible Democratic opponent, for her criticism of Bush's failure to contain North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
"I would remind Sen. Clinton and other Democrats critical of the Bush administration's policies that the framework agreement her husband's administration negotiated was a failure," McCain said at a news conference outside Detroit after a campaign appearance for GOP Senate candidate Mike Bouchard.
"We had a carrots-and-no-sticks policy that only encouraged bad behavior. When one carrot didn't work, we offered another."
Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines made clear that the lawmaker, who is running for re-election to the Senate, had no intention of apologizing for President Bill Clinton's diplomatic efforts or attacking those of his successor.
"President Bush has been in charge of North Korea policy for six years, and two days ago we saw the brazen result," Reines said.
Candidates across the nation took sides and pointed fingers on an issue that a few years ago might have prompted a bipartisan outcry at North Korea.
Setting the tone for the coming debate, House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio released a statement just moments after Bush went on national television Monday morning, blaming Democrats for opposing missile-defense programs.
"It is now clear that such a position would weaken America's national defense and put Americans in danger," Boehner said.
On Tuesday, Boehner's office followed up with a list of Democratic votes against the Patriot Act, warrantless surveillance of suspected terrorists, military tribunals for detainees at Guantanamo Bay and other Bush administration programs, asserting that "Americans want the strong and decisive approach that Republicans bring to national security policy in order to keep America safe."
Democrats, meanwhile, urged candidates to make the point that "North Korea's nuclear test represents a colossal foreign policy failure of the Bush administration."
"America is less secure because Republicans have lost control of national security - they have failed to stop North Korea's aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons, and they stubbornly stay the course in a failed strategy in Iraq, a country that has never had nuclear weapons," reads the memo provided to the San Francisco Chronicle. "New leadership is needed. ..."
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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