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THE NATION

Renewed Terrorism Focus Reshapes Debate

Politics: Domestic issues have been pushed aside. Bush's emphasis on homeland security adds up to challenges for the Democrats.

June 13, 2002|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — When House Democrats release their plan for providing prescription drugs under Medicare today, they will devote most of their energy to generating local newspaper and television coverage in towns far from here.

The reason: With concern about terrorism once again dominating Washington, they don't expect much attention from the national media.

''We have all lowered expectations,'' says Erik Smith, press secretary for House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). ''The emphasis becomes much more local.''

That shift in strategy is a telling measure of how the continued focus on terrorism is scrambling the political debate for the rest of the congressional session and the midterm election.

For months, almost all Democratic strategists, and even some Republicans, have assumed that traditional domestic issues such as the economy and Social Security would force terrorism and national security from the spotlight as the election approaches. But with each passing week, that assumption looks weaker.

After a succession of high-level government warnings capped by the arrest on May 8 of an American citizen allegedly plotting to acquire a radioactive ''dirty" bomb, polls show that terrorism has reemerged as the public's top concern.

At the same time, President Bush's ambitious proposal to establish a Department of Homeland Security is poised to dominate the remainder of the congressional session.

''This is going to be a massive pig going through the congressional python, and it is going to shove an awful lot of other domestic issues aside,'' said Jim Jordan, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Sustained public attention to terrorism could pose several electoral challenges for Democrats. The debates on terrorism-related issues in Congress have eclipsed the domestic concerns that Democrats wanted to highlight, such as prescription drug coverage and reform of health maintenance organizations.

And the ongoing concern about new attacks could raise the political salience of national defense and homeland security, issues that polls show voters think the GOP handles better than Democrats.

''That's going to make it harder for Democrats,'' predicted Matthew Dowd, director of polling at the Republican National Committee. ''Democrats would rather talk about an issue that they have the lead on.''

Indeed, for months, Democratic strategists across the party's ideological spectrum have advised party candidates to stress their agreements with Bush on the war against terrorism and then shift the focus to domestic issues.

Yet Democrats are growing increasingly concerned that the White House is determined to rivet public attention on terrorism as long as possible, in part through a steady stream of Bush speeches, proposals and law enforcement announcements, like Monday's disclosure about the alleged ''dirty'' bomb plot.

Some Democratic officials accuse the administration of manipulating these announcements for political advantage, either to blot out discussion of intelligence failures before Sept. 11 or to overshadow the lack of agreement in Congress on topics such as providing prescription drugs for seniors.

''Obviously, the Republicans are politicizing national security and the war,'' charged Jordan.

White House officials adamantly deny such assertions. But they acknowledge that Bush is trying to maintain public focus on the terrorism threat.

One ranking official said that, while partisanship is not the motive for this effort, Bush ''wants to keep attention on the war on terrorism because it is the issue that is front and center to who he is, and it is going to be the definitional issue of his administration.''

Early this year, as the war in Afghanistan wound down, polls showed most Americans ranked the economy--and sometimes other domestic issues such as education--above terrorism when asked the most important problem facing the country.

But in the last month, terrorism has moved back atop the list. That followed both the spike in suicide bombings in Israel, which raised concerns about copycat attacks at home, and a spate of warnings from top administration officials about the likelihood of another terrorist attack in the U.S.

This tilt toward terrorism likely will grow even more pronounced after the intense media coverage of the ''dirty'' bomb story.

A survey by Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg showed why this shift could be bad news for his party. In the poll, voters who said their top concern in the midterm election was domestic issues favored Democratic candidates for Congress by 20 percentage points or more. But those who said their primary concern was terrorism and security favored Republicans by 17 percentage points.

Most Democratic strategists remain optimistic that most voters will still base their election day decisions on domestic issues, in large part because they are unlikely to see significant differences between candidates on terrorism-related issues.

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