Sept. 11 steers candidates in first presidential election since attacks

WASHINGTON (AP) – In the first presidential election since the Sept. 11 attacks, the day and its aftermath have become key issues in the campaign. From advertisements and speeches to priorities and promises, the worst terror attacks in U.S. history have clearly flipped the political landscape.

President Bush and Democratic nominee John Kerry regularly clash over whether the country is safer and its borders protected. Firefighters are popular backdrops on stage. Debates over jobs, health care and the price of gasoline all have been pushed aside by Sept. 11 and all that came from it – including, in Bush’s view, the Iraq war.

Perhaps the only day this year when Sept. 11 won’t be politicized as much is the anniversary itself, when Bush and Kerry will bow their heads to honor the nearly 3,000 people who died in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

“It’s the issue. It’s at the top,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Sept. 11 has been the tragic mother of the two issues dominating the election: the war on terror and Iraq.”

Yet the candidates split sharply over whether Iraq is part of that war on terror. Seeking to merge the two, Bush paints the pre-emptive military campaign as an extension of the day when Americans were caught off guard by Osama bin Laden. Kerry tries to divorce the two, focusing on failures in Iraq and arguing that the Iraq war has made winning the war on terror harder.

While Republicans tout Bush’s leadership that unified a startled country, Democrats focus on what has gone wrong since.

The GOP convention in New York – a few miles from the Ground Zero site of the attacks – aimed to bring Americans back to the time after the attacks when the president’s approval ratings went sky high.

“Three days after September 11th, I stood where Americans died, in the ruins of the Twin Towers,” Bush said, reviving the image. “Workers in hard hats were shouting to me, ‘Whatever it takes.”‘

Tributes were paid to victims at both conventions, but the Republicans played the theme much more heavily. On opening night, the city’s former Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, mentioned the date 11 times in his speech. Sen. John McCain urged his listeners to never forget it. And three women who lost family members that day stood against a backdrop that read, simply, September 11, 2001.

Democrats criticize their opponents for using the attacks for political gain. Republicans counter that they cannot ignore the defining point of Bush’s presidency.

“It’s not something to shy away from, and the Kerry campaign certainly needs to understand, if you’re going to criticize us for what’s bad, we’re certainly going to have the right to talk about what’s good,” said Republican pollster Ed Goeas.

But the Bush campaign must also be careful not to overtly politicize the tragedy, or risk criticism.

In March, for example, Bush’s commercials included images of the toppled buildings and of firefighters carrying a flag-draped stretcher through the wreckage. The ads drew rebukes from some relatives of Sept. 11 victims and from firefighters supporting Kerry.

The atmosphere could not be more different from the 2000 campaign, when Bush and Democratic opponent Al Gore had no need to prove themselves effective wartime presidents and rarely uttered words like terrorism. Polls showed national security closer to the bottom of voter concerns.

Less than eight months into Bush’s term, though, the four planes were hijacked and the game changed.

“If Sept. 11 is the dominant theme and Iraq is successfully tied to it, Bush wins,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Public Policy Center.

“If the central theme is jobs and health care, Kerry wins.”

AP-ES-09-03-04 1915EDT

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