Friday, January 13, 2006

Bush's domestic spy plan looms as election issue

Bush's domestic spy plan looms as election issue

By John Whitesides, Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush's extension of domestic spying on Americans has inflamed Democratic critics, but public opinion is split on the issue and analysts say it could reinforce traditional Republican advantages with voters on national security.

Bush has vigorously defended his decision to circumvent the courts and allow government eavesdropping on international telephone calls and emails by suspected terrorist collaborators in the United States after the September 11, 2001, attacks. Critics say this an illegal violation of civil liberties.

Republicans contend Bush was taking any step necessary to protect American lives, and many party strategists welcomed a renewed political debate on security and terrorism -- the one issue where the public still favors Republicans in most polls.

"It is a big mistake for Democrats to think they can gain some sort of political traction by running against the security of the United States," Republican strategist Jim Dyke said.

Democratic critics say the effort is another example of the Bush administration's broad misjudgments and abuse of power after September 11. Bush's decision to skip court authorization for the wiretaps and surveillance has drawn fire even from some Republicans.

"We haven't seen this kind of abuse of power since Richard Nixon," Democratic Party chief Howard Dean said, adding the efforts could lead to some terrorism-related cases being thrown out of court.

"It could play to the image of a president who is overreaching and not succeeding -- going to war without a clear purpose or credible proof in retrospect, isolating America, wiretapping," Democratic pollster Doug Schoen said.

But he said without evidence of a broader pattern of domestic surveillance by the administration the issue was unlikely to play a big role in November's elections, when control of Congress will be at stake.

"We're a long way away from saying this is a front-burner, hot-button issue that would have an impact on the elections," Schoen said.

"If it is just about Al Qaeda and terrorism, I'm not sure it is a positive for the Democrats. If there is a degree of overreaching by Bush that goes beyond that, then we have an issue," he said.

Bush, who has refused to backpedal on the issue, defended himself again on Wednesday in Kentucky.

"I understand people's concerns about government eavesdropping, and I share those concerns," Bush said. "I had to make the difficult decision between balancing civil liberties and, on a limited basis -- and I mean limited basis -- try to find out the intention of the enemy."

Polls show a sharp split among the public. A Washington Post-ABC News poll this week found 51 percent favored the domestic eavesdropping as a way to fight terrorism, while 47 percent did not. A Pew Research Center poll found 48 percent of respondents thought Bush's actions were generally right, and 47 percent thought they were generally wrong.

Both polls found a partisan divide, with Republicans supporting the effort by much larger margins than Democrats.

"The overall finding of public opinion since the September 11 attacks is that the American public is willing to see the rules bent a little bit in the war on terrorism," said Pew pollster Andrew Kohut.

The Pew poll found security and terrorism was the only one of five major issues facing the country that the public felt Republicans could handle best. Democrats were favored to handle the economy, Iraq, domestic and social issues and foreign policy.

"The Democrats have a much stronger case on domestic issues than they do on this one, unless it begins to look a little more dicey in respect to its effects on civil right of a broader base of people," Kohut said.