WASHINGTON, (AP) -In the thick of an election campaign, President Bush has revived and retooled his argument that the U.S. must fight terrorists overseas or face them here. Despite the unpopularity of the Iraq war, some GOP candidates are borrowing Bush’s line.
“We leave before the mission is done, the terrorists will follow us here,” Bush warned at a news conference this week.
Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., locked in a tight Philadelphia-area re-election race, went a step further. “We either fight them there, or we fight them in the supermarkets and streets here,” he said Wednesday in an interview with CNN.
Bush is not on the ballot this midterm election year. But control of the GOP-led Congress is. So the elections could determine the fate of what’s left of Bush’s second-term agenda.
The fight-them-there theme has been part of Bush’s national security stump speech since 2003. But the “follow us here” part is a relatively new twist.
Noting polls that show growing Iraq war opposition, Bush and other Republicans have been stressing links between Iraq and the broader war against terrorism — a connection Democrats generally dismiss.
They’ve also been trumpeting their record of urging aggressive action against terrorists.
“What you’re seeing here is a restatement of what the administration, and I think most Republicans, consider to be a truth, which is that Iraq is right now the principal battleground in the war on terror,” said GOP consultant Rich Galen.
The foiling by British authorities of an alleged terrorist plot to blow up U.S.-bound planes gave new impetus to the terrorism issue for Republicans — even as it underscored that potential terror strikes against the United States could come from anywhere.
An AP-Ipsos poll released Wednesday found that 60 percent of Americans believe that in the long run there will be more terrorism in the United States because of the war in Iraq.
That’s up substantially from an AP-Ipsos poll taken in December 2003, after the capture of Saddam Hussein, when the figure was 40 percent.
In the new poll, 40 percent of Republicans said they believe there will be more terrorism in the U.S. because of the war. That compares with 74 percent of Democrats. The poll of 1,001 adults, taken Aug. 7-9, had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Also, a CBS-New York Times poll on Wednesday said just 44 percent of Americans now consider the Iraq conflict part of the broader war on terror — as the administration contends — down 10 points from June. More than half now say it is not.
“That’s exactly why the president is refocusing on this, to remind people that that’s an incorrect assessment. They are tied together,” said Galen.
Stephen Cimbala, a professor at Penn State University who studies the interaction between war and U.S. politics, said Bush and Republican leaders clearly have decided that emphasizing their leadership in fighting terrorism is the best way to maintain congressional GOP majorities.
“And the more issues they can commingle with the war on terror, the better for them,” Cimbala said.
Republicans hope that by cranking up their rhetoric on fighting terrorism they can offset the growing opposition to the Iraq war and blunt Democratic calls for troop withdrawals.
“That’s their strategy and message: We’re going to make you safer at home if we fight the terrorists there,” said James Thurber, a political scientist at American University. “The language may have changed, but the theme has not.”
Is Bush right? Will staying in Iraq keep the U.S. from having to fight terrorists at home?
“It’s partly true and partly not true,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
He said al-Qaida and other terror groups who once found refuge in lawless places like Afghanistan would probably fill any vacuum in Iraq created by departing U.S. troops, setting up training camps and lines of communication.
“But what is also true is that sometimes in fighting a war on terror, you create the conditions under which more people decide to be terrorists,” Alterman said. “there’s a lot on both sides of the ledger. Part of it depends on how Iraq turns out and part of it depends on the conduct of U.S. policy.”
More and more Republicans, even war supporters like Sen. John McCain , R-Ariz., are voicing unhappiness with the administration’s efforts to sell the war to Americans.
McCain, a potential 2008 presidential candidate, said Tuesday the administration had misled Americans into believing the conflict would be “some kind of day at the beach.” McCain was in Ohio campaigning for Republican Sen. Mike DeWine , who is in a tough re-election fight in which the war is a key issue.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino on Wednesday disputed McCain’s characterization, saying the president “has been consistent in saying how tough and difficult it’s going to be” to stabilize Iraq.
“But he also said it would be a mistake if we left, and that the terrorists would follow us here,” Perino said, reprising Bush’s line.