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Inside Politics

Democrats tackle homeland security issue

By David Williams
CNN

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(CNN) -- Homeland security has been a recurring issue in the presidential election -- highlighted by unprecedented security for the Democratic and Republican conventions after fears that al Qaeda may try to disrupt the proceedings.

It's an issue that the Democrats are trying to make their own. The party has made providing "a stronger, more secure America" one of four themes for next week's convention. (Special Report: The issues)

Sen. John Kerry, who will accept his party's presidential nomination at the convention, has repeatedly criticized the Bush administration's record on homeland scurity.

Kerry recently started running ads calling for increased funding for first responders, such as firefighters, police officers and medical responders, arguing "we shouldn't be opening firehouses in Baghdad and closing them down in our own communities."

The issue could be a difficult one for Kerry. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted between July 19 and July 21 found that 54 percent of people surveyed said they were satisfied with the way things were going in the war on terrorism, while 44 percent said they were dissatisfied.

In the poll, which had a margin of error of +/- 3 percent, 56 percent of the respondents said they believed Bush would do a better job of dealing with terrorism, while 38 percent said Kerry would.

But only 40 percent of those surveyed said the United States was winning the war on terrorism, while 16 percent said the terrorist were winning and 41 percent said neither side was winning.

"It's not clear that there's a whole lot of things that you can do that are markedly different than what the administration has been doing and proposes to do," said Charles Peņa, the director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. "Which is not to say that there are not things that you could do differently."

Peņa said it could be difficult for the Kerry campaign to distinguish its positions from those of the Bush administration because of Americans' desire for a perfect defense.

"You can check down the list and say 'What would a John Kerry do that is different than George Bush?' Would Kerry say 'No, we don't need to do any of this' and the answer of course is no, he can't," Peņa said.

"So from the Kerry camp's perspective, I think it puts them at a little bit of a disadvantage. They can be critical of things they don't think are working well, and that's fair enough, but it's harder for them to say here are things that we would do that the administration isn't doing," he said.

Kerry campaign spokeswoman Allison Dobson said that more can be done to improve security.

"The president has talked very big on this issue, but hasn't done enough to secure our ports, FBI and local law enforcement can't adequately share information. First responders don't have the equipment that they need. Cities and states are bearing too much of the cost of homeland security," she said.

''John Kerry and John Edwards believe that we can make our homeland even more secure and that this is not good enough, this has to be a top priority," she said.

Kerry has called for a single intelligence chief to oversee the 15 U.S. intelligence agencies -- one of the key recommendations of the committee investigating the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. (9/11 panel report: 'We must act')

Kerry endorsed the commission's report and promised that if elected, he would convene an emergency security summit "that brings together leading Democratic and Republican members of Congress" as well as the leaders of the intelligence agencies, if the recommendations have not been implemented.

Michael Greenberger, the director of the University of Maryland's Center for Health and Homeland Security and a former counterterrorism official during the Clinton administration, said that fixing U.S. intelligence was an essential part of any strategy.

"Worrying about what we call consequence management or cleaning up after a terrorist attack... is quite important," Greenberger said. "But the most important issue is heading it off in advance domestically and understanding internationally where the threats arise."

Greenberg said Kerry has "been ahead of the curve in terms of worrying about that and seeing how it can be fixed."

Kerry has also made proposals aimed at improving security, while easing the burden on state and local governments.

He has proposed training National Guard troops and members of the Americorps program for emergency response and other homeland security responsibilities.

Kerry also proposed creating a volunteer community defense service his campaign says would act as a "21st century Neighborhood Watch." In the event of an attack, volunteer leaders would be available to help emergency responders and to provide information about evacuation routes.

He has also called for federal funding to hire and equip 100,000 new firefighters and restoring funding to the Clinton-era initiative to hire 100,000 police officers.

Kerry's plan also promises to provide funding to fill the backlog of requests for equipment for first responders.

He also promised to create a fund to help state and local governments pay for the costs of raising the terror alert level.

"When the alert system is raised from yellow to orange, the cities and states are putting their first responders on a heightened degree of alert in a time when they are confronted with the worst fiscal crisis they've had since the Great Depression," Greenberger said.

"Obviously, it's just killing their budgets. And I know that if you speak around the country to fire chiefs, they will tell you that in terms of personnel and resources they will tell you that they are in worse shape now than they were on September 10, 2001."


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