Democrats turn on Bush over handling of national security

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The Independent US

Democratic contenders for next year's presidential election made their first spirited attack on George W Bush over the weekend on the issue widely regarded within the United States as his greatest strength – his handling of national security and the so-called "war on terrorism".

With bombs attributed to a revived al-Qa'ida wreaking havoc in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, the candidates sensed a vulnerability in the White House strategy and hammered the president for failing to find Osama bin Laden, for failing to fund domestic security measures adequately, for fostering a climate of fear at home and for allowing himself to be distracted by the invasion of Iraq. "We have let al-Qa'ida off the hook," said Bob Graham, a Florida senator and a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, whose words carry particular weight.

"We had them on the ropes close to dismantlement, and then we moved resources out of Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight the war in Iraq. We let them regenerate," he said.

Several other candidates, including former governor Howard Dean of Vermont, former House minority leader Richard Gephardt, and North Carolina's Senator John Edwards said funding for the new Department of Homeland Security had been compromised by the President's obsession with tax cuts and cheap non-unionised labour.

Mr Gephardt said: "When you get to the bottom line, the money is not there. We are vulnerable to further attacks because this Administration has not done its job."

Senator Edwards said: "We should not cede this issue to a President and a party whose idea of homeland security is plastic wrap and duct tape."

Saturday's debate took place in Iowa, traditionally the first state to give its verdict on the Democratic presidential candidates in a party caucus, and featured seven of the nine declared contenders. In a sign, perhaps, of modestly increased confidence in an otherwise battered and demoralised Democratic Party, the seven avoided petty partisan attacks on each other, reserving their fire exclusively for the current incumbent of the White House.

Mr Dean said: "This President has ruled by making us fear each other. We've lost a lot in the past two and a half years."

Carol Moseley Braun, the former senator of Illinois, focused on Mr Bush's tax cuts: "This crowd is into fighting the needy and helping the greedy."

Mr Dean agreed with her, saying: "The President's prescription for everything is take two tax cuts and call me in the morning."

Such sentiments went down well with the union-heavy crowd in Des Moines. A long struggle still lies ahead, however, in convincing a scared and largely trusting electorate that the man in the White House, with his talk of war and crisis without end, is part of the problem and needs to be replaced.

Two prominent candidates did not attend the Iowa debate. The former vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, a conservative Democrat whose campaign has suffered because he supports much of Mr Bush's foreign policy agenda, was observing the Sabbath but sent a videotaped message saying he was from the "victorious wing" of the party.

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, widely regarded as the initial frontrunner, was in New Hampshire, meanwhile. He, like much of his party until now, has seemed reluctant to attack Mr Bush too hard on issues of national security for fear of alienating voters.

The new-found vigour of the Democrats in Iowa went only so far, however. Like all presidential candidates since the Cold War, they avoided discussing the United States' role in the world. There was no mention of Mr Bush's diplomatic isolationism or policies of pre-emptive defence or drastically increased military budgets.