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Dana Milbank:October Surprise?

President Bush spoke for 29 minutes at Charleston Air Force Base yesterday. He mentioned al Qaeda 95 times. The repetition apparently even wore out the White House stenographers, who spelled the terrorist group's name "Qaida" 87 times and "Qaeda" eight times.

"No enemy is more ruthless in Iraq than al Qaeda," Bush said.

And: "The al Qaeda terrorists we face in Iraq are part of the same enemy that attacked us on September the 11th, 2001."

And: "I say that there will be a big defeat in Iraq and it will be the defeat of al Qaeda."

At about the same time, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he was subjected to no end of abuse about his limited competence and credibility in running the Justice Department. He responded by going right to al Qaeda. Ignoring the concerns raised by the committee, Gonzales read an opening statement about the need to "keep our country safe from terrorists" because "the threat posed to America and its allies by al Qaeda and other terrorist groups remains very strong."

For the president and his administration, the constant invocation of al Qaeda has grown less effective with each repetition. Still, it's Bush's strong point, relatively speaking. While only 33 percent of Americans approve of the job the president is doing in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, 43 percent approve of the way he's handling the war on terrorism.

The frequent references to terror also help Bush make the case to stay in Iraq. While 55 percent in the poll support withdrawing U.S. combat forces from Iraq next spring, two in five of those peel off when asked if such a withdrawal would increase the chance that al Qaeda could establish terrorist bases in Iraq.

Though Bush long ago passed the point of diminishing marginal returns with his reference to al Qaeda, Republican presidential candidates continue to believe that the strategy will work for them in 2008. That explains Rudy Giuliani's comfortable position at the front of the GOP horserace. Nationwide, his 34 percent support in the Post poll is more than double that of his nearest competitor.

But will that be enough for Republicans? The case of Eric Edelman would argue otherwise. Edelman, a Cheney acolyte in the Pentagon, attacked Hillary Clinton last week for suggesting that asking questions about contingency planning in Iraq would embolden the terrorists. This familiar charge proved devastating to Democrats in 2002 (Max Cleland) and 2004 (John Kerry). But this time, the accusation immediately backfired on Edelman.

Of course, the calculus changes rather dramatically if, say, Osama bin Laden is frogmarched out of Pakistan in October, 2008.

--Dana Milbank

Posted at 8:33 AM ET on Jul 25, 2007  | Category:  Morning Cheat Sheet
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