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Can the GOP use the terrorism issue to win -- again?

By Bill Schneider
CNN Senior Political Analyst
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Could there be political fallout in the United States from the terror arrests in Britain?

Typically, when Americans become fearful their support for the president tends to go up. President Bush and the Republican Party used the security issue to their advantage in the previous two elections, when they portrayed Democrats as weak and vacillating. Republicans give every indication that they intend to run on the security issue again in 2006.

Vice President Dick Cheney said on Wednesday that one thing he found disturbing about the defeat of Sen. Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic primary on Tuesday was that "our adversaries in this conflict, the al Qaeda types, clearly are betting on the proposition that ultimately they can break the will of the American people." (Cheney made the comments after he was briefed on the suspected terror plot, according to a senior administration official.)

Republicans may use the issue against Democrats who voted against renewal of the Patriot Act this year. In the House of Representatives, 123 "no" votes were cast by Democrats running either for re-election or for another office. Three "no" votes were cast by Democratic senators seeking re-election -- Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

Will the issue work for Republicans this year?

In a CNN poll taken by the Opinion Research Corporation last week -- before the arrest of terror suspects in Britain -- terrorism topped the list of issues that voters said would be "extremely important" to their vote this year. (The poll involved interviews with 1,047 adult Americans on August 2-3, 2006. The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 3 percent.) (Read the complete poll results -- PDF)

But among voters concerned about terrorism, slightly more said they would vote for a Democrat (50 percent) rather than a Republican (45 percent) for Congress.

Republicans still do better on terrorism than on any other issue except same-sex marriage, which is far less important to voters. But the Republican advantage on terrorism had vanished, at least before the news from Britain.

Why did that happen? Here's a clue. As of last week, only 31 percent of Americans believed the United States and its allies were winning the war on terror. That is the lowest figure recorded since 9/11. The prevailing view (45 percent) is that neither side is winning.

One reason is disillusionment with the war in Iraq. A majority of Americans polled recently by the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg News believe terrorism has increased around the world because of the situation in Iraq (52 percent). Only 5 percent think the Iraq war has decreased the threat of terrorism, while 39 percent say it has made no difference.

This week's primary results suggested a growing anti-incumbent mood in the country. Three incumbent members of Congress -- Republican Rep. Joe Schwarz of Michigan and Democrats Lieberman and Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia -- were defeated by candidates from their own parties, a rare phenomenon.

But concern about terrorism threats could blunt that anti-incumbent mood and lead voters to place more value on experience. If news of the suspected plot had come out only a few days earlier, it might have helped Lieberman.

And it still might, since he has filed to stay in the race as an independent candidate. His Democratic opponent, Ned Lamont, issued a statement saying the terror arrests in Britain show the need to fight "for our security in a rational, serious way rather than being bogged down in a war than is harmful to our security."

For Democrats, all issues in this campaign come down to Iraq. For Republicans, they all come down to the war on terrorism.

Police officers Thursday stand beside an American Airlines plane at Glasgow Airport in Scotland after a suspected plot against airliners was made public.




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