After months of reaping political benefit from his handling of last September's terrorist attacks, President Bush now finds himself on the defensive over revelations that he was told of the possibility of al-Qaida hijackings last August. While opposition Democrats see a political opening in the controversy, they are also being advised to proceed with caution.
The president was defiant Friday in his first public comments on the question of what exactly he was told by intelligence officials about terrorist threats prior to September 11. "Had I known that the enemy was going to use airplanes to kill on that fateful morning, I would have done everything in my power to protect the American people," he said.
With the administration on the defensive for the first time over its handling of the September 11 attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney was quick to warn Democrats not to exploit the intelligence controversy for political gain.
"They need to be very cautious not to seek political advantage by making incendiary suggestions, as were made by some Thursday, that the White House had advance information that would have prevented the attacks of 9-11," he said.
Democrats say they are not after political points, merely information.
"This is not partisan bickering," said House Democratic leader, Congressman Richard Gephardt of Missouri. "We are with the president on the war, have been, will be. But we have to get the facts out in front of the American people, so we can all do better."
But after months of high public approval ratings, political analysts say the Democrats hope to use the controversy to puncture what has been an aura of political invincibility surrounding the president because of his handling of the September 11 attacks.
"They see an opening here which may or may not be real," said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "We will have to see once the investigations are held. But just the fact that investigations are being held means that there will be a series of damaging headlines, even if the headlines are only about questions."
In the short term, Professor Sabato says the controversy could have an impact on this November's congressional mid-term elections.
"If the Bush White House does not handle this carefully, it could be the beginning of the end of their hopes to retain control of the House of Representatives and to regain control of the U.S. Senate," he said. "And, of course, there will be long-term damage to Bush's image. So, they have a serious problem that they have to deal with. So far, they have not been dealing with it very well.'
But other analysts disagree, contending that the public is not in a mood to blame the president for U.S. intelligence failures.
"I do not think this is going to wash at all as an election issue," said Martin Schram, a political analyst for the Scripps Howard Newspaper Service. "And they probably think he [Bush] has done a pretty good job, all things considered, and they will not blame him for not putting together the puzzle that no intelligence expert could put together either."
Professor Larry Sabato believes the president still enjoys strong public support and says Democrats would be wise to proceed with caution.
"The Democrats have to be very careful. They have already appeared to be a little too eager to ask these questions and to undermine Bush," he said. "What will be key is whether Republicans will stay united behind Bush. That has not happened yet. Some Republican senators and congressmen have also been asking questions. If you have the aura of bi-partisanship, then the questions become much more damaging."
A new public opinion poll found that two-thirds of those surveyed believe that the Bush administration should have discussed earlier the information it had prior to September 11. But the poll, conducted by CNN, USA Today and the Gallup organization, says only about a third of those surveyed view the president less favorably than they did before the intelligence revelations.