Democrats Leverage President's Political Ports Problem
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Weeks of headlines about the ports deal have given Democrats the chance to take the offensive on national security issues. NPR's David Welna reports on a party that has struggled to persuade voters, it's tough enough.
DAVID WELNA, reporting:
Listen to how minority leader Harry Reid attacked the Dubai Ports deal yesterday on the Senate floor.
Senator HARRY REID (Democratic Minority Leader, Nevada): Do we Senate Democrats want a country, not a company, running our seaports? No.
WELNA: The implied message is that Republicans feel the port deal is okay, though many of them actually do not. Today, Reid plans to hold what's being billed as a Democratic national security conference at the Texas State Capitol as part of his so-called Red State Tour. The promised theme: Why Republican incompetence has made our homeland less safe. Other leading Senate Democrats are also sounding the alarm on national security. Here's Delaware's Joseph Biden yesterday on the Dubai ports deal.
Senator JOSEPH BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware): Hopefully, it's opened everybody's eyes to just how terrible, terribly incompetent and negligent this administration has been in protecting homeland security.
WELNA: And here's New York's Hilary Clinton touting a bill banning all foreign governments from buying U.S. port operations.
Senator HILARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): It is aimed at trying to send a big wake-up call to our own government that we've not done what we need to do on, on security in our ports and so much else that has basically been neglected since 9/11.
WELNA: The Senate's number two Democrat, Dick Durbin, says there's been a sea change in how his party's viewed on national security matters.
Senator RICHARD DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): Until the Dubai port deal, the Bush administration politically owned, uh, owned the issue, owned the franchise when it came to security. That's changed now.
WELNA: But others are skeptical about how much has changed. Neil Newhouse is a Republican pollster.
Mr. NEIL NEWHOUSE (Republican Pollster; Co-founder, Public Opinion Strategies): This one issue isn't gonna solve all the problems the Democrats have on the national security front. You know, they don't even have a unified position on the Iraq war.
WELNA: But polls show the strong advantage on national security that Republicans have enjoyed has narrowed considerably. A new Gallup poll shows that the 19 percentage point lead Republicans had over Democrats on national security four years ago, has shrunk to just a five point difference. Mark Melman is a Democratic pollster.
Mr. MARK MELMAN (Democratic Pollster): Karl Rove has already signaled that the strategy for congressional Republicans is gonna be once again to grab on to this lifeboat of national security, but frankly, that is a lifeboat that is sinking in the waters off Dubai.
WELNA: Melman is himself advising Democrats to campaign for next fall's mid- term elections on national security. For Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican who's battling to keep his Senate seat, that's good news.
Senator RICK SANTORUM (Republican, Pennsylvania): Well, I hope that national security is the centerpiece of my race for the United States Senate. I'd be very happy to have our record on building a strong military, having an aggressive policy of taking on those who would like to harm us versus the, uh, the talk and paper approach that the Democrats take.
WELNA: If there's one Democrat whose national security credentials have not been challenged by Republicans, it's Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman. He's been one of the strongest supporters of the war in Iraq and that could be why, even though he, too, is up for reelection this year, he did not join the stampede against the Dubai Ports deal yesterday.
Senator JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (Democrat, Connecticut): I worry that in the midst of the war against Islamist terrorism, we're reaching a hasty judgment based on factors that ought not to be considered in the United States of America.
WELNA: But fellow Democrat Dick Durbin says that port deal has sown the kinds of doubts in Republican leadership that won't go away.
Senator DURBIN: And I think we're gonna have an examination of the 9/11 Commission, you know, what they said, the F's that were given to this administration; harder questions now on Iraq and it's future. Uh, I think the bloom is off the rose.
WELNA: It's a refrain bound to be repeated by Democrats all the way to Election Day. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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