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Security Looms as Decisive Issue in US Election - 2004-08-03

This week's terror alert covering financial institutions in New York, Washington and New Jersey is the latest reminder that security will be a major issue in this year's U.S. presidential race.

As they both campaign around the country, President Bush and Senator John Kerry are determined to convince voters of their ability to protect Americans from terrorism.

"See, you cannot talk sense to the terrorists," said President Bush. "You cannot negotiate with them. You cannot hope for the best. You must bring them to justice."

"I will lead America in war with the lessons I learned in war, and I defended this country as a young man, I will defend this country as president of the United States," Mr. Kerry said.

Public opinion polls have consistently given President Bush an advantage on the question of who would do a better job of handling the war on terrorism.

Independent analyst Stuart Rothenberg says many voters will likely decide whether to re-elect the president largely on that one issue.

"I think if the voters evaluate George Bush generally on terrorism, I think that is an asset for him," he said. "If the voters look specifically about Iraq and casualties and car bombs and things like that, that is not nearly as good for the president."

Senator Kerry spent most of the recent Democratic convention trying to convince the public that he would be a more effective commander in chief than President Bush, largely because of his combat experience in Vietnam.

Some new polls suggest Senator Kerry did not get much of a boost from the convention and that the race is still basically a dead heat.

But Vaughn Ververs, editor of the Hotline political newsletter, says a more careful reading of the latest polls indicates Senator Kerry has pulled even with the president on the question of who would be a better commander in chief and who can better handle the war on terrorism.

"Kerry really did get a bounce," he said. "He is now seen as a more capable commander in chief. He is just a little bit trailing Bush on [handling] the war on terror in some of these polls."

The timing of the recent terror alert and the fact that it was, in part, based on information going back a few years, has prompted a debate between Bush and Kerry supporters on whether the terror alerts might be used for political purposes.

This exchange took place on a call-in program on the C-SPAN public affairs network.

"We already know that we are under alert since 9/11 and I think that the people need to realize that this has been orchestrated by the Republicans," said one caller.

"I think people calling in and making these ridiculous statements about this being planned by Bush, I think they better stop and think about something," said another caller. "Evidently, Kerry is falling for it too because he called for Congress to come back early and get going on this [the 9/11 commission recommendations]."

Both candidates have also rushed to embrace the recommendations of the 9/11 commission. President Bush says he will support the creation of a national intelligence director to coordinate intelligence gathering.

For his part, Senator Kerry says Congress should return to work immediately to implement all of the panel's major recommendations.