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Inside Politics

The '04 Dems weigh in on 'Code Orange'

JUDY WOODRUFF

A U.S. soldier stands on a surface-to-air missile system in Washington.
A U.S. soldier stands on a surface-to-air missile system in Washington.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As the nation adjusts to an "orange" Christmas, the '04 Democratic presidential candidates are issuing mixed responses to the Homeland Security Department's decision to raise the terror threat level from "elevated" to "high."

The varied responses signal that not all of the campaigns think that politicizing this issue during the holidays is the best strategy.

• General Wesley Clark is one candidate who did see an opening.

Clark argued on Monday's "Inside Politics" that the continued intelligence about threats was a result of the Bush Administration's preoccupation with Iraq. He said the heightened alert status is a sign that "we've been putting our resources into the wrong area."

Clark added: "At one point, the president even wanted to say Iraq was the central front in the war on terrorism. But it clearly is not. It wasn't. And many of us have been saying for well over a year, that this was going to be a distraction from the war on terror, that it wasn't going to help us win against Osama bin Laden."

• Democratic front-runner Howard Dean -- usually not one to shy away from taking on President Bush, has opted for a low key approach, not commenting specifically on the new orange alert.

• Senator Joe Lieberman praised the Bush administration: "They made the right decision. They had enough intelligence information to make me worry about the possibility of another terrorist attack."

• But Senators Kerry and Edwards, like Clark, criticized the Bush administration. They both argued that the administration was underfunding Homeland Security concerns and distributed details on their own proposals to assist first responders and protect the nation from another attack.

Strategists' views

GOP strategist Scott Reed predicted that Democrats who attack on this issue are setting themselves up for a fall: "If they [Democrats] think they're going to pick up votes by doing this, I think they're in for a surprise because while there are times and places to raise legitimate issues like funding levels -- which everybody should be able to raise -- there's no interest in this piling-on (during) the Christmas week. Big mistake."

But Democratic strategist Doug Schoen said he believes that homeland security is an issue Democrats shouldn't cede to the Republicans.

Schoen said, "We are less secure than we were a couple of years ago. We haven't broken the back of al Qaeda. And it is a legitimate question in the presidential election."

Schoen did qualify his statement, adding, "though certainly at a time like this, I think it's right that we have to pull together around the president."

There are indications that the heightened alert status will remain in place through the beginning of the new year.

As the Democratic field focuses on bolstering support in the first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, we'll just have to watch to see which issue weighs more heavily with voters -- domestic security or economic concerns.


Judy Woodruff is CNN's prime anchor and senior correspondent. She also anchors "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics," weekdays at 3:30 pm ET.

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