GOP Security Strategy Tested Again in 2006

Republicans triumphed in the 2002 and 2004 elections, in part, because they challenged Democrats on national security issues. But this election year, strategists on both sides say things may be different.

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The debate over terror suspects has complicated the White House effort to put Democrats on the defensive over the war on terror, but it hasn't derailed it all together.

NPR National Political Correspondent Mara Liasson reports how this year's version of the national security debate is playing out in the mid-term election campaign.

MARA LIASSON: Each election year since 9/11, Republicans have succeeded in making the campaign about national security. This year, says Republican strategist Jeffrey Bell, it's a little more difficult.

Mr. JEFFREY BELL (Republican Strategist): I think it'll be harder for the Republicans to win the two-year debate, because they have had five years of conducting the war on terrorism, and there are many aspects of it that have been frustrating, pArcticularly the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. So, I think the performance level just isn't as good.

LIASSON: But, Bell says, he and other conservatives have been both heartened and impressed with the way the White House has repositioned the debate this fall - away from the war in Iraq and toward the war on terror. The White House has focused on two issues: the treatment of detainees and the warrantless surveillance of suspected terrorists.

Mr. BELL: The beauty of this design is that the Democrats are being given a whole series of challenges - whether to go along with the president's approach to terrorism. And if they hesitate in any one of them, then that gives you a sound bite, potentially.

LIASSON: It gave Congresswoman Nancy Johnson more than a sound bite. She's running this television ad attacking her Democrat challenger, Chris Murphy.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Announcer #1: A terrorist plot may be unfolding. Should the government intercept that call or wait until the paperwork is filed? Nancy Johnson says act immediately. Lives may be at stake. Liberal Chris Murphy says no, apply for a court warrant even if valuable time is lost. Chris Murphy: wrong on security, wrong for America.

LIASSON: But this year, Democrats are not reacting the way they did in the past, says Democratic strategist Anna Greenberg.

Ms. ANNA GREENBERG (Democrat Strategist): Democrats understand that we have to be strong in the way we talk about the war on terrorism and not cede it, which is something that I think we did in 2002 and to some degree in 2004.

LIASSON: In the 2002 mid terms, when President Bush and his Iraq policy were more popular, Democrats tried to change the subject to domestic issues like healthcare. But in 2006, they're dealing with the issue head on. In the Eighth District of Arizona, Democrat Gabrielle Giffords starts airing this ad today.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Announcer #2: Our ports un-inspected. Our border unprotected. And we're still dependent on Middle East oil. Five years after 9/11, Washington's failed to make us safer. Gabrielle Giffords sponsored Arizona's law to combat terrorism. She'll demand real security for families.

LIASSON: Another thing that's different, says Greenberg, is that unlike 2002, the endangered incumbents this year are mostly Republicans.

Ms. GREENBERG: I think if you look at the top 50 competitive races, 40 of them have Republican incumbents. And I think what you're going to see is Democratic candidates in those races running very aggressively around support for an ongoing war on terrorism, support for the president - any president - having the tools he or she needs to fight the war on terrorism, but doing it within a framework that keeps our troops safe and is legal.

LIASSON: In the 2002 mid terms, the debate was about legislation authorizing the Department of Homeland Security. Democrats cast numerous votes against it because of a dispute over collective bargaining rights for federal employees. Republicans used those votes to argue that Democrats were against giving the president the tools he needed to fight terrorists.

This is year, the substance of the debate is more fundamental. It's about the Geneva Conventions and the balance between surveillance and privacy. But that tends to get lost in the heat of a campaign, says Northeastern University political scientist Bill Mayer.

Professor BILL MAYER (Political Science, Northeastern University): It's also fair to say that a lot of the subtleties of this debate are going to be missed by the average voter, and that they will just interpret these as kind of proxies for the general question of are the Democrats tough enough? Are the Republicans responsible enough on these issues?

LIASSON: And that's the same basic debate, says Mayer, that the two parties have been waging on and off since the 1970s.

For the moment, Democrats are staying on the sidelines of the debate over interrogation tactics. They're happy to take cover behind the military credentials of men like John McCain and Colin Powell. But Republican Jeffrey Bell says even that won't protect Democrats over time.

Mr. BELL: I don't think that McCain and a few other Republicans voting the other way - even if it meant defeat for the president's bill - would really destroy the comparison.

LIASSON: Bell believes that no matter where the debate in Congress heads next, it won't stop Republicans from comparing themselves to Democrats on national security. But this year, neither party is certain whether that tactic will work for the GOP as it has in the past.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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