WASHINGTON -- Republican efforts to portray themselves as stronger than the Democrats on national security might have gotten a real-world boost with the unraveling of an alleged terror plot in London, analysts said yesterday.
The arrests of 24 suspected plotters came only hours after White House officials, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, sought to link Democratic opposition to the Iraq war with softness in fighting terrorism. Their comments were in response to a surge in anti-war sentiment in this week's Connecticut primary election that appeared to threaten candidates from both parties who have been supportive of the administration's Iraq policy.
"As people become concerned about terrorism, it puts a focus on the strong suits of the Bush administration," said Andrew Kohut, an independent pollster who directs the Pew Research Center. At the same time, "it puts pressure on Democrats to not seem too far out in their criticisms of the war."
A shift in focus away from Iraq's increasingly deadly civil strife and toward fighting terrorism would benefit President Bush and, by extension, Republicans, Kohut added.
Bush and other administration officials have long argued that Iraq has become the central battleground in the global conflict against terrorism. The president, on a campaign stop in Green Bay, Wis., called the arrests in Britain "a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists."
A day earlier, in reacting to Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman's primary loss to an anti-war challenger, senior administration officials linked Democratic opposition to the war to softness in combating terrorism.
Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, described the Connecticut vote as a "defining moment" for the Democratic Party, and said, "A white flag [in Iraq] means a white flag in the war on terror."
Democrats argue that the war in Iraq has made the nation less secure, a point they underscored in response to the latest arrests.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said that "defusing this terror plot" was "an important reminder that we need to renew our focus on the war on terror." But his statement criticized Bush and the administration for failing to make the country as safe as it should be, adding that the "Iraq war has diverted our focus and more than $300 billion in resources from the war on terrorism and has created a rallying cry for international terrorists."
Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, while commending U.S. and British authorities for foiling the plot, added, "Imagine how different our situation would be today if we had not shifted our elite forces from Afghanistan to Iraq at the critical moment when we were close to finding Osama bin Laden. ... Starting an unnecessary war in Iraq has not made us more secure, but less secure."
Polls indicate that voters regard Bush more favorably when it comes to dealing with terrorism than in other areas. Historically, voter attitudes toward the president are reflected in the results of midterm elections for Congress, even though the president's name isn't on the ballot.
But Democratic strategists said it wasn't clear that a shift in the public's focus away from the Iraq and toward fighting terrorism would benefit Republicans in 2006.
"Have we reached a tipping point where voters say Bush isn't doing enough? It's too much of a mess?" said Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster. In 2004, enough voters decided they trusted Bush to keep the country safe, but "I don't think most Americans believe that any more."
White House adviser Karl Rove has made no secret of Republican plans to use national security as a central issue in this year's elections. In January, he told party leaders that "Republicans have a post-9/11 worldview, and many Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview."
Cheney echoed those words in a rare conference call Wednesday afternoon with wire service reporters, initiated at the request of the White House.
Cheney suggested that the "dominant view" emerging in the Democratic Party - "that somehow we can retreat behind our oceans" - could encourage "al-Qaida types" to think they can break the will of the American people.
A spokeswoman wouldn't say whether Cheney knew the arrests were imminent when he made the remarks, but she said the vacationing vice president has participated in Bush's intelligence briefings via videoconference.