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Democrats offer national security agenda

WASHINGTON—Congressional Democrats unveiled a national security plan Wednesday that they hope will erase their most significant political vulnerability in a pivotal wartime election year—the belief that they're too weak to defend the country.

Their most dramatic promise: If they win control of Congress this fall, they'd vote on their first day in power to implement all the recommendations of the independent 9-11 commission. That would boost security at ports, airports, chemical and nuclear power plants, on mass transit systems and at the border, they said.

Their vaguest point: They lambasted Republicans for the Iraq war but offered no alternative beyond a promise of "responsible redeployment" of U.S. troops and a "significant" transition to full Iraqi sovereignty.

In a hint of the investigations they might launch if in power, the Democrats also promised to hold the Bush administration "accountable for its manipulated prewar intelligence, poor planning and contracting abuses" in Iraq.

One of their leading voices for pulling troops out of Iraq, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., attended the event, according to an aide, but wasn't visible on the platform, which was crowded with dozens of lawmakers, and didn't speak. Their most vocal critic of the war, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., wasn't in view either, and his office didn't respond to queries about whether he went.

The Democrats made their pitch as polls find they're closing the historic gap on the question of which party would better safeguard the country.

In a recent Gallup poll, 45 percent of adults said they trusted Republicans to defend them against terrorism, while 41 percent said they trusted Democrats. Four years ago, the margin for Republicans was 51 percent to 19 percent.

Much of the Democrats' gain could be attributed more to Republican problems—anger at the Iraq war and a proposal to turn over operations at some U.S. ports to a company controlled by the United Arab Emirates—than to Democratic stands.

But Democrats hoped to add to their side of the ledger with Wednesday's event. It was a campaign-style rally under a banner proclaiming, "Real Security," with congressional Democrats flanked by well-known Democratic voices on national security, including retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Clark boasted that a U.S.-led war under Democratic President Bill Clinton saved more than a million Albanians from ethnic cleansing without the loss of a single American life. By contrast, he called the Iraq war "a strategic blunder." Albright accused the Bush administration of "rank incompetence."

Among the Democratic promises, many culled from earlier proposals:

_Screen 100 percent of the containers and cargo bound for the United States at their points of origin.

_Prevent outsourcing of critical work at ports, airports or mass transit to "foreign interests that put America at risk."

_Give more resources to police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians, who'd be the first to respond to terrorist attacks.

_Enact a new GI Bill of Rights to guarantee better pay, health care and other benefits for the military.

_"Eliminate" al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, destroy al-Qaida and "end the threat" of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

_Boost the National Guard and double the size of the military's Special Forces.

_Secure all the world's loose nuclear materials by 2010.

_Provide more armor and other protection to troops.

"We are uniting behind a national security agenda that is tough and smart, an agenda that will provide the real security President Bush has promised, but failed to deliver," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

In response, Vice President Dick Cheney told Fox News that the Democrats had no real plan to catch bin Laden and that their proposal for Iraq would amount to a retreat. He also said that their promise of a strong defense was contradicted by their past opposition to extending the Patriot Act.

"Their behavior has been totally inconsistent with what they're now promising they're going to do," Cheney said.

For more on the Democrats' security agenda: www.democrats.gov

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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