Voters debate security question


Campaign: The presidential race could hinge on which of the two major candidates makes Americans feel safe.

September 30, 2004|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Three years ago, President Bush resisted the creation of a Homeland Security Department, which, he warned, could become a lumbering bureaucracy that would do little to make America safer. But Bush wasn't the only skeptic.

Though he voted in the end to establish the department, Sen. John Kerry, like most Democrats, helped block the bill until issues of union membership in the department and the agency's autonomy were resolved.

Today, neither Bush nor Kerry acknowledges those early positions. Both are working feverishly to paint themselves as better able to protect America from another terrorist attack, and they are using the Homeland Security Department to drive home their point. For both sides, the department has become the most invoked symbol of how much or how little has been achieved in protecting the homeland since Sept. 11, 2001.

As the two candidates prepare for their first of three debates tonight, their stances on homeland security and plans for preventing another attack have come to the forefront. Each man wants to cast the other as weak and indecisive. In reality, neither's prescriptions are very different from the other's.

Bush and Kerry have both stressed the importance of border and airline security and of properly equipping local police and firefighters, while arguing that the other candidate neglects such priorities. Both want to overhaul the nation's intelligence capabilities, tighten security at chemical and nuclear power plants and force closer cooperation by law enforcement agencies.

The issue up for debate tonight is who can do it better.

Kerry accuses Bush and his Homeland Security Department of moving too slowly to tighten security and failing to allocate enough money for states and localities. The administration, Kerry argues, has not created adequate terrorist watch lists, sufficiently reformed the intelligence community or provided enough money to properly equip police and firefighters. "This administration has given our homeland security efforts short shrift," Kerry has said.

Recently, Bush countered: "We're doing everything we can to protect our country. In the past three years, we have taken unprecedented steps to defend the homeland, to increase security and to give our brave first responders the tools they need to deal with a terrorist attack."

Bush stands by his assertion that America is safer because of the initiatives he has put in place, including the creation of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center and a plan to secure cargo containers and the nation's borders.

Though the two men are trying to chip away at the other's plans, their differences lie mostly at the margins. In the end, both express determination to deploy the necessary resources to keep Americans safe.

"Homeland security is a pretty well-established agenda," said I.M. Destler, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland who specializes in homeland security. "You can choose your priorities, but the focus is on our borders, getting the people who are a threat, getting better intelligence, helping the first responders."

The issue has tended to favor Bush among the two major candidates. Opinion polls show that more Americans trust Bush on matters of homeland security.

Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who is examining presidential races, said it is harder for Kerry to convince voters that they are not safe than for Bush to convince them they are.

"Kerry can say [administration officials] haven't done enough," she said. "But a lot of people who travel on airplanes can see the [new Transportation Security Administration], when they go through security, they can see the longer lines ... . They see it on a real basis."

Still, the candidates have found a few modest points of difference to distinguish themselves that will likely draw more scrutiny. Recently, for example, Bush and Kerry sparred over the end of the 10-year federal ban on assault weapons, which the president did not actively try to extend. Kerry charged that Bush, in effect, made the streets more dangerous for police officers while making it easier for terrorists to acquire high-powered military-style weapons.

In raising the issue of funding for local homeland security efforts, Kerry has charged that the president was too busy pouring money into the war in Iraq to properly pay for state and local security efforts at home. Pollsters say, though, that in the minds of voters, Bush has successfully linked the protection of America from al-Qaida with the need to invade Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein. Polls show many voters believe the two missions are related.

Perhaps the two candidates' widest divide on homeland security involves the U.S.A. Patriot Act. Bush fully endorses the law, saying it has helped law enforcement agencies share information and find terrorists operating cells in the United States. He pledges to seek the law's renewal when it expires next year.

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