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Greenfield: For GOP, terrorism issue no longer a sure thing

Is Iraq a distraction from or part of the fight against terror?

By Jeff Greenfield
CNN Senior Analyst

The alleged terror plot in Britain and passenger delays at airports have made terrorism an election issue again.


Democratic Party
Acts of terror

NEW YORK (CNN) -- There's no doubt what the Republican game plan for November is: Paint the Democrats as the party of retreat, unable or unwilling to face the hard reality of what it means to fight America's enemies. That game plan was effective two and four years ago -- but what about this time?

It's not as though we haven't seen parties gain traction based on wartime loyalty. For decades after the Civil War, Republicans urged citizens to "vote as you shot," equating Democrats with the Confederacy. And during World War II, FDR had no hesitancy in appearing regularly at military installations to remind voters he was indeed commander in chief.

As far as the current GOP approach goes, it's about as subtle as a police siren. And it was proclaimed in June by top Republican strategist Karl Rove, when he said of the increasingly anti-war Democrats: "They may be with you for the first shots, but they're not going to be with you for the tough battles."

And he directly linked a withdrawal from Iraq to increased danger at home when he argued that failure in Iraq "would provide a launching pad for the terrorists to strike the United States and the West" -- a new variation on the more familiar attempt to conflate Iraq and the broader terror danger that went: "We have to stop them there so we don't have to fight them here."

Now remember: Rove's words came nearly two months before Ned Lamont defeated Sen. Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic primary, and before British authorities thwarted the plot to blow up airliners.

After those events, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman was eager to cite the Connecticut vote as evidence Democrats in general had embraced the "bring them home" view that Lamont's supporters chanted during primary night. More politically significant, though, was how Mehlman redefined the choice this fall in the wake of the increasing unpopularity of the war in Iraq.

"The choice in this election," he said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," "is not between 'stay the course' and 'cut and run,' it's between 'win by adapting' and 'cut and run.' "

Back in 2002, when 9/11 memories were fresh, Republicans were able to win control of the Senate by unseating two Democrats -- Georgia's Max Cleland and Missouri's Jean Carnahan -- who they claimed had not backed the president. In 2004, with the Iraq war losing support, they effectively painted John Kerry as inconsistent and uncertain.

But the GOP faces a different challenge this year. A number of Republicans have openly broken with the administration on the war. Not just Nebraska's Sen. Chuck Hagel -- always a skeptic -- but a congressman such as Minnesota's Gil Gutknecht who returned from a July trip to Iraq to say that the situation in Baghdad was more dangerous than he'd been led to believe. Or North Carolina conservative Walter Jones, who advocates withdrawal, or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has been sharply critical of the war's conduct. The party also will face an electorate that -- if the polls are right -- is more likely to see Iraq as a distraction from, not an essential part of, the war on terror.

There is also this question: Did the Connecticut Democrats who beat Lieberman represent a national Democratic trend? Here's one measure: Among Democratic senators up for re-election this year who have been relatively supportive of the war in Iraq, Lieberman is the only one who faced a serious primary challenge. If Sen. Hillary Clinton's all but invisible primary opponent begins to garner support and money from the anti-war bloggers and from grass-roots campaign contributors, that would be a real sign that the Lamont victory has meaning beyond the borders of Connecticut.

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