THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The New York Times
June 18, 2008
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Republican John McCain paints Democratic rival Barack Obama as naive on foreign policy, weak on national security and, now, soft on terrorism.
President Bush successfully used that line of argument in 2004 against Democrat John Kerry. Republicans sought to do the same in the 2006 congressional elections but failed; Democrats won control of the House and Senate.
Today, McCain -- a different presidential candidate in a political environment dominated by the nation's economic woes -- seemingly has little choice but to criticize Obama the same way. Like those before him, McCain and his surrogates are raising the specter of Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to do it.
''The Democrats want to go back to a pre-September 11th view of terrorism ... The Democrats, led by Barack Obama, want to go back to being on defense,'' Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and top McCain surrogate said Wednesday, a day after McCain's campaign claimed Obama is naive and ''a perfect manifestation a September 10th mind-set.''
Fighting any notion of weakness, Obama quickly cried foul. He accused McCain of ''fear-mongering'' and said Wednesday: ''He's also going to use the Bush-Cheney political playbook that's based on fear.''
Sure enough, the politics of fear have resurfaced -- and it's easy to see why.
National security and foreign policy are McCain's signature issues and, historically, a Republican strength. Obama, a first-term Illinois senator, is not nearly as experienced on such matters, and the Democratic Party long has been perceived as weaker than the GOP on the country's safety.
McCain, a four-term Arizona senator, former Navy pilot and Vietnam POW for 5 1/2 years, has a better chance to win if he can focus voters on national security.
It may be a hard sell
This year, voters overwhelmingly care more about bread-and-butter concerns as gas prices soar, the housing market slumps and layoffs spike.
An AP-Yahoo News poll in April showed that while three-fourths of people said terrorism was an important issue, voters ranked eight other issues as more important -- the economy, gas prices, health care, the Iraq war, taxes, Social Security, political corruption and education. Of those calling terrorism an important issue, 41 percent said they'd vote for McCain while 30 percent said they'd choose Obama.
Terrorism may not be as potent a campaign issue as it once was.
The country is nearly seven years removed from the 2001 terrorist attacks, and Republicans face the challenge of simplifying the complex issues of fighting terrorism by using a with-them-or-against-them argument. The public has grown more skeptical as holes were poked into everything from Bush's justification for going to war with Iraq to his administration's efforts to expand executive authority in the name of protecting the country.
And so many other factors in this election -- from race and age to experience and competency -- may further muddy the GOP's efforts. Obama, age 46 and a Senate rookie, would be the first black president; McCain, age 71 and a Senate veteran, would be the country's oldest first-term elected president.
Even so, with the GOP facing challenging headwinds, McCain has few options outside of trying to change the conversation by exploiting Obama's vulnerablities on foreign policy. In some ways, it's almost as if McCain is embracing the residue of the Democratic primary in which Hillary Rodham Clinton portrayed herself as stronger and Obama weaker on national security.
Like Clinton, McCain has repeatedly criticized Obama for saying last year that he would be willing to meet -- without preconditions -- with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea.
Bush, too, weighed in last month when he hinted that Obama wants to appease terrorists and radicals.
The likely Republican nominee also saw opportunity -- and jumped at it -- when an adviser to the Islamic militant group Hamas said recently: ''We like Obama and hope that he will win the election.'' McCain used the comment in a fundraising appeal and said: ''I guarantee you, they're not going to endorse me.''
This week, McCain has roundly assailed Obama over his response to the Supreme Court ruling that detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have a constitutional right to challenge their indefinite imprisonment in U.S. civilian courts.
Both candidates support shutting down the prison but they staked out opposite positions on the ruling.
Obama applauded the decision, saying it strikes the proper balance between fighting terrorism and ''protecting our core values.''
McCain derided the ruling as ''one of the worst decisions in the history of this country'' -- and turned loose his aides and backers, who criticized Obama for talking about using the criminal justice system to prosecute terrorists. His allies turned up the heat after Obama, in an ABC News interview, spoke approvingly of the successful prosecution and imprisonment of those responsible for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and contrasted their treatment with that of Guantanamo Bay detainees.
Five months before voters go to the polls in a general election that, so far, has focused on the economy, it remains to be seen whether McCain can refocus voters on the threat of terrorism -- that is, short of a terrorist attack changing the race.
EDITOR'S NOTE -- Liz Sidoti covers the presidential campaign and has covered national politics since 2003.