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Democrats demand apology from Rove as political rhetoric heats up

WASHINGTON—Democrats and Republicans snarled at one another Thursday over whether liberals were soft on terrorism in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, a new sign that the bipartisan accord on war that prevailed in official Washington for nearly four years is unraveling.

The latest skirmish centered on a Wednesday night speech in New York by White House political guru Karl Rove in which he ridiculed liberals for a wimpish response to terrorism in the fall of 2001. Democrats responded with a barrage of criticism, accusing the White House of rewriting history and demanding that Rove apologize or be fired.

The brouhaha comes after weeks of escalating political rhetoric that's echoed a decline of public support for the Iraq war in opinion polls. It's a marked contrast to the months following the 2001 attacks, when almost all Democrats in Congress supported war in Afghanistan, and in 2002, when most of them voted to authorize war in Iraq.

Some leading Democrats, including Sens. Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, have long been critical of Bush and the Iraq war. But they were exceptions; even last year, the party signaled its support for the war when it rejected anti-war presidential candidate Howard Dean in favor of then-pro-war candidate John Kerry.

In recent weeks, however, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the House Democratic leader, has called the Iraq war a "grotesque mistake." Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate Democratic leader, has called Bush "a liar and a loser." And Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, likened interrogation techniques used on detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to those used by Nazis.

Conservatives voiced outrage at each aspersion.

Speaking Wednesday at a fundraiser for the New York Conservative Party near the World Trade Center site in New York City, Rove said conservatives and liberals had differed over how to respond to the terrorists.

"Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers," he said. "Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war."

Democrats responded by noting their enthusiastic support for the war against the Taliban regime that harbored al-Qaida terrorists in Afghanistan. They also released statements from President Bush in 2001 praising Congress, including Democratic leaders Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Dick Gephardt of Missouri, for their support.

"Our entire country came together after the 9/11 terrorist attacks," Pelosi said Thursday. "His shameful comments trying to revise history insult the victims of 9/11 and all of us who support them."

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., called it "an insulting comment."

Dean, now the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said Rove was trying to distract attention from the failure to capture terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.

"Given the miserable failures of Bush's foreign policy, it's no wonder Rove would launch this desperate attempt to deflect from the real issues and distort what Democrats say than admit what Republicans have done," Dean said.

A group of families whose relatives died on Sept. 11 issued a statement condemning the politicization of the tragedy. "We are calling on Karl Rove to resist his temptations and stop trying to reap political gain in the tragic misfortune of others. His comments are not welcome," their statement said.

The Republican National Committee later provided a list of quotes from several prominent liberals, including financier George Soros, filmmaker Michael Moore and the activist group Moveon.org challenging the need for war after the 2001 attacks.

Soros called for "police work."

In a 2002 interview, Moore said: "To bomb Afghanistan, I mean, I've never understood this." Similarly, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said: "Afghanistan may be an incubator of terrorism, but it doesn't follow that we bomb Afghanistan."

Moveon.org urged "moderation and restraint" in responding to the attacks, the RNC said. The group also urged that "wherever possible, international judicial institutions and international human rights law" be used against terrorists rather than war.

Moveon.org issued a statement contending that it hadn't opposed military action in Afghanistan and charging that "Karl Rove is trying to change the subject on the president's failed Iraq policy."

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For more on the Republican side: www.rnc.org/News/Read.aspx?ID=5578

For more on the Democratic side: www.democrats.org/blog/comment/00012255.html

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Karl Rove, Nancy Pelosi

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