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US Election Focus on Iraq, War on Terror


The war in Iraq and the war on terror have now emerged as central issues in the U.S. congressional election campaign. Democrats believe public concern over Iraq helps them, while Republicans are trying to shift the debate to the overall war on terrorism, an issue they believe works to their benefit.

In recent weeks, President Bush has discussed the war on terror in almost every speech, and the issue has now become the central theme in November congressional elections.

Analysts say the president's focus on the terrorism issue may help Republican congressional candidates struggling to overcome the public's pessimistic assessment of the situation in Iraq.

In a series of recent speeches, President Bush sought to convince the American people that the war in Iraq is the central front in the war on terror.

"This is the fundamental challenge of the 21st Century. A failed Iraq would make America less secure," said Mr. Bush.

Public opinion polls suggest that, in the short term, at least, the president may be helping the Republican cause in November. Mr. Bush's approval rating has risen in several recent polls and Republicans appear to have solidified their standing as the party better able to deal with the threat of terrorism.

Opposition Democrats have been busy rebutting Republican charges that they are weak on terrorism. They are also trying to keep the election focus on what they believe are the Bush administration's failures in Iraq.

Nancy Pelosi of California is the leader of Democrats in the House of Representatives: "Democrats take our responsibility to provide for the common defense very seriously. Protecting the American people is our primary responsibility as elected officials," she said.

For much of this year, Democrats have been confident about turning this year's congressional elections into a referendum on President Bush, even though midterm elections often revolve around local issues and candidates.

Thomas Mann is a political scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"For the Democrats, it clearly is to say this is an opportunity for voters to hold the government accountable for what has transpired over the last six years and to turn this into a negative referendum on the performance of President Bush and his Republican Party," he added.

Republicans are taking heart from the latest polls, optimistic that a focus on national security and the overall war on terror will help them in the November 7 elections.

Historian Michael Beschloss spoke on the Don Imus program on MSNBC television.

"The series of speeches he has been giving in the last few weeks have been very much to say that the big issue is not Iraq, but it is terrorism, the two things are related," he said. "And politically, it does seem to be working. His [approval] numbers are going up."

Many analysts say the Republican effort to focus the election debate on terrorism was predictable.

Tom DeFrank is the Washington bureau chief for the New York Daily News and a frequent guest on VOA's Issues in the News program.

"Historically, meaning over the last three or four years, the president and the Republicans have clearly won the debate," he noted. "The polls have consistently shown that the American people think Republicans and President Bush have done and would do a better job than Democrats in dealing with the terrorist threat. I think the polls still show that, although the numbers are not as dramatic for the president as they once were."

Despite the improving poll numbers for Republicans, many political analysts predict that the situation on the ground in Iraq could have a major impact on the November elections.

Continuing sectarian violence could undermine public support for the war effort and increase the likelihood that U.S. troops will have to remain in Iraq for a long time.

Just this week, the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, General John Abizaid, said the current level of 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq would have to be maintained at least into early next year.

Democrats believe unhappiness over Iraq could be a major catalyst rallying voters to support them in November.

Amy Walter is senior editor of the Cook Political Report, a non-partisan political newsletter.

"All the structural advantages in the world do not matter," she said. "When the wave comes, it takes people down. And when voters are angry and when the environment is as such, there is very little that individual candidates or campaigns can do."

Domestic issues like the economy, fluctuating gas prices and congressional corruption are also likely to be factors in the November election.

Democrats need a gain of 15 seats to win a majority in the House of Representatives and six seats to retake control of the Senate.

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