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Time Has Eased Bush Post-Sept. 11 Political Gains - 2002-08-27

There is little question that last September's terrorist attacks and their aftermath had a huge impact on the American political landscape. But it remains to be seen how lasting that impact will be.

On September 10, 2001, George W. Bush was a moderately popular president, still struggling to emerge from the shadow of one of the most controversial and divisive elections in U.S. history.

That all changed on September 11, when 19 terrorist hijackers took control of four commercial airliners and slammed two of them into New York's World Trade Center towers, toppling the 110 story buildings. A third plane hit the Pentagon outside Washington, causing a billion dollars in damage. Some 3,000 people were killed in the attacks and on the fourth plane, which crashed in Pennslyvania.

In the days and weeks that followed, the president's public approval ratings soared as his leadership and rhetorical abilities were tested as never before.

"We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter and we will not fail," said Mr. Bush.

In recent months there has been a slow, but steady erosion in the president's popularity. Still, University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato says President Bush has had a remarkable ride since September 11. "His popularity soared to 90 percent and amazingly, a year later, it is still in the mid-60s. So he has permanently gained, I think, a good 10, 12, 15 points and that is remarkable for someone who actually lost the popular vote in 2000," said Mr. Sabato.

Opposition Democrats were quick to rally around the president and promised bipartisan support for the war on terrorism. Among them was Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle who said at the time, "We want President Bush to know, we want the world to know, that he can depend on us."

But in recent months, that bipartisanship has begun to fray around the edges. Looking toward congressional midterm elections in November, Democrats are focussing on the public's growing concern over the economy and corporate fraud.

Some recent opinion polls give Democrats a slight edge in the upcoming congressional races, after months of indicating an advantage for Republicans.

Analyst Larry Sabato says the passage of time has made it easier for Democrats to criticize the president, especially on domestic issues. "They are going to feel much freer during the election campaign to focus on the domestic components of their agenda where they believe, correctly, I think, that Americans will view criticism not as an attack on the country, but as simply legitimate criticism of an incumbent president's actions or inactions," he said.

Looking beyond the opinion polls and the November elections, some experts predict that the terrorist attacks will have a lasting impact on the U.S. political landscape.

For the foreseeable future, voters will have to consider the new reality of America being a terrorist target, said Robert Lieber, professor of Government at Georgetown University in Washington.

"It conveys a sense of a very dangerous threat to America's national security and most vital interests of the sort that Americans sensed both during World War II and during the height of the Cold War," he said. "That sense of threat was absent during the period from the end of the Cold War in 1989-90 up until September 11, 2001."

Political analysts are divided, however, over how much of a factor terrorism will be in the November elections, since congressional races are usually decided on economic and local issues.

Part of VOA's series on the September 11 terror attacks.