WASHINGTON—The sprint to November's elections began in earnest Tuesday with President Bush and congressional Democrats each trying to seize the national security issue by offering sharply contrasting assessments of progress in the war on terror.
The president delivered the second in a series of speeches designed to shore up flagging public support for the war in Iraq and to highlight what he called government success in combating terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
As Bush addressed military officers at a Washington hotel, Capitol Hill Democrats countered by releasing a report detailing bleak trends in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea and calling for a sharp change in tactics.
Tuesday's showdown reflects a determination by the White House and the Republican Party to frame November's congressional elections as a choice over national security, a theme that worked for them in the last two elections. The Democrats' response shows their determination to blunt that tactic by turning the U.S. record in Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terror against Republicans, who've controlled all branches of government since 2001.
At stake is control of Congress, and by extension, the degree to which it might support or oppose Bush in the final two years of his presidency.
Bush's speech Tuesday repeated familiar themes: He insisted that America is winning the war on terror, that Iraq has become the central front in that war and that the United States military will stay there until the job is done.
Quoting extensively from Osama bin Laden, Bush said all his military efforts are aimed at defeating the threat posed by "violent Islamic radicalism," a scourge he compared to Adolf Hitler.
"Bin Laden and his terrorist allies have made their intentions as clear as Lenin and Hitler before them," Bush said. "The question is: Will we listen? Will we pay attention to what these evil men say?
"It is foolish to think you can negotiate with them," Bush said.
No one in either party has suggested negotiating with terrorists, but Bush's remark echoed other recent administration gibes seemingly aimed at Democrats. Last week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld compared critics of the war in Iraq to Nazi appeasers.
Democrats plan to push a Senate resolution this week proclaiming no confidence in either the war in Iraq or in Rumsfeld, whom they want Bush to fire.
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow dismissed that idea on Tuesday.
"The president strongly supports the defense secretary," Snow said. "Creating Donald Rumsfeld as a bogeyman may make for good politics, but would make for a very lousy strategy at this time."
Democrats countered Bush's speech with a flurry of national-security events and statements. Their leaders unveiled a report by Third Way, a nonprofit advocacy group aligned with moderate Democrats, which paints Bush's war on terror as a failure.
The report asserts that:
_The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating, with the number of Taliban attacks rising sharply since 2004.
_Insurgent forces in Iraq are growing, from 5,000 in 2003 to an estimated 20,000 earlier this year.
_Iran and North Korea are increasing their potential capacities to make nuclear weapons.
"Under the Bush administration and the Republican Congress, America is less safe, facing greater threats and unprepared for the dangerous world in which we live," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement.
Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a veteran who backs withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, said that if Bush is determined to stay, he may need to reinstitute a draft. "We cannot sustain the current course," Murtha said in a statement.
The political battle over which party is more trustworthy on national security will likely rage until Election Day—and beyond.
In Congress, Republicans plan to focus this last month in session before the elections on a national security agenda that includes planned votes on defense spending, confirmation of John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations, codifying Bush's domestic eavesdropping program and creating guidelines for interrogating suspected terrorist detainees that would meet Supreme Court approval.
Democrats blasted the Republican agenda as an election-year publicity stunt.
"Republicans have dubbed this Security September in an openly cynical attempt to use our nation's security in a political gamble to save their congressional majority," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the Democrats' whip.
Senate Republican Whip Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said that Republicans are only playing to their strength.
"The best way to measure progress in the war on terror is, have we been attacked again here at home?" he said. "We haven't. It's not an accident. It's not a quirk of fate. It's been because we've been on offense, going after these people in Afghanistan and in Iraq."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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