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McCain Pushes On Terror

Less than two weeks into the general election campaign between Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and John McCain (Ariz.), the race has turned into a referendum on which candidate can keep Americans safe from the threat of terrorism -- a repeat of the 2004 election between President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry (Mass.).

Picking up on comments made by Obama in an interview with ABC's Jake Tapper earlier this week regarding the best legal methods of dealing with suspected terrorists, the McCain campaign has insisted over the last two days that the Illinois senator's approach is naive and represents a return to the way in which the country viewed terrorists before Sept. 11, 2001.

McCain ratcheted up the rhetoric today by trotting out former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the person most identified with a strong response to the terrorist threat in this country, to not only condemn Obama's remarks but also to cast the Illinois senator's approach as fundamentally misguided.

Democrats, and Obama in particular, have "more concern about the rights of terrorists than the right the American people have to safety and security," said Giuliani, adding that the Democratic nominee has adopted a "defensive approach to terrorism."

Time and again Giuliani sought to prebut the certain response from Democrats that he and the McCain campaign were invoking the politics of fear to win an election. "This is about the politics of reality," he said. "This is a real threat we face."

The Obama campaign, not surprisingly, quickly organized a response conference call to Giuliani's comments.

"What we've been hearing from John McCain and Rudy Giuliani are yet more in a series of dishonest distortions straight out of Karl Rove's playbook," said Susan Rice, a senior foreign policy advisor for Obama. She later added that the "Bush-McCain approach to terrorism is weak and has left us less safe."

The underlying strategy from the McCain campaign is clear. In a political environment in which the Republican brand has been badly damaged by President Bush and the war in Iraq and huge majorities of people believe the country is on the wrong track, the best hope for the GOP to keep the White House in the fall is to frame the general election around a single question: Are you safer than you were four or eight years ago?

Giuliani today argued that it was "objectively" true that the policies of the Bush Administration had thwarted more than 20 terrorist plots in the United States since 2001 and that it would be hard for Democrats to argue with that record of success.

On a call yesterday, Obama surrogate and former counter terrorism czar Richard Clarke argued just the opposite -- that the reason there had been no terrorist attacks in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001 was because the President had given terrorists a far easier way to target Americans, by opening up another front in Iraq. "They've killed 4,000 and wounded 25,000," he said. (The Post's Alec MacGillis noted yesterday that Clarke's logic on that point seemed to suggest that Iraq was a front in the war on terror -- a point most Democrats reject.)

Polling suggests that the ability to combat terrorism is McCain's biggest advantage over Obama but also shows the gap between the two men on the issue shrinking.

In the most recent Post/ABC survey, 53 percent of the sample said they trusted McCain more to handle the "U.S. campaign against terrorism" while 39 percent said they trust Obama more.

Compare that to the other pressing issues of the day, such as the economy (52 percent trust Obama more/36 percent trust McCain more), gas prices (50/30), health care (53/33) and energy (51/36) and it's immediately clear why Republicans are so eager to engage in an extended debate over which candidate is best equipped to keep the country safe from terrorist threats.

While Republicans are currently fighting on the best political ground available to them, there are warning signs that the issue will not be the silver bullet that many GOP strategists had hoped.

The trend line on who Americans trust to handle the war on terror, for example, is not moving in the right direction for McCain. In a Post/ABC poll back in March, McCain had a 25 point edge over Obama on the issue while in May his lead was 21 points.

The shrinking of McCain's edge on terrorism mirrors a trend we saw during the 2006 election cycle, when congressional Republicans' traditional edge on terrorism/national security issues eroded as November approached -- allowing Democrats to fight them to a draw on the issue and, in some places, even win on it.

There seems little doubt that the question of who can keep America safe from another domestic terrorist attack will be front and center in the minds of many voters in the fall campaign. How each individual answers that question, however, remains up for debate. The next five months will be critical in helping voters make up their minds.

By Chris Cillizza  |  June 18, 2008; 11:50 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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