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Wednesday, August 04, 2004

New York Times > NEWS ANALYSIS - The Presidential Fine Line

August 4, 2004
WASHINGTON, Aug. 3 - In an election that could well turn on questions of war and peace, danger and safety, all politics sometimes seem to be security these days. And all security has an unmistakable overtone of politics, whatever the reality or immediacy of any announced threat.

"We don't do politics in the Department of Homeland Security," Secretary Tom Ridge said on Tuesday in dismissing any suggestion that his latest threat warning had a political motive. But on Sunday, Mr. Ridge, a former Republican congressman and governor of Pennsylvania, did do some politics all the same, when he declared that the intelligence behind his alert was "the result of the president's leadership in the war against terror."

John Kerry may not share that view, of course, but it is hard for him to say so, and the biggest thing the Democrats may have to fear in this campaign is the power of fear itself.

Polls show that Mr. Bush's handling of terrorism remains his only clear advantage over Mr. Kerry in a razor-close race, and the president would not be either human or the canny politician he has proved himself to be in the past if he did not do all he could to remind the public of that strong suit - and to reinforce it.

That is why Mr. Bush chose to hold the Republican National Convention this month in Madison Square Garden, a short subway ride from ground zero, and why he released a new campaign advertisement on Tuesday with images of the firefighters and the flag, proclaiming, "The last few years have tested America in many ways, but together, we're rising to the challenge: standing up against terrorism and working to grow our economy."

But Mr. Bush must also take pains not to be seen as letting the political tail wag the terrorism dog. Word that much of the newly discovered intelligence that prompted the latest alert was years old led even some law enforcement officials to wonder why Mr. Ridge had raised the threat level just now.

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