— From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby
Five years after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and 57 days until election day... As President Bush takes part in a series of observances and prepares to address the nation tonight, pluralities of voters say the country is "more safe" than it was before September 11, 2001 and give his Administration and its policies "some of the credit" for the absence of another terrorist attack on US soil since then, per the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. The results also suggest that some of the key arguments being made in the partisan debate over the war on terror -- Democrats' claim that the nation is less safe because of the war in Iraq, and the Administration's effort to take credit for the absence of another terrorist attack on US soil -- are having limited impact.
Democrats have been trying to keep the spotlight on the unpopular war in Iraq by arguing that it has made the nation less safe. Their congressional challengers around the country are observing today's anniversary by "reminding local voters that this Republican Congress should be doing more" on border and port security and more to implement the recommendations of the September 11 commission, per a party release. Yet public opinion on whether or not the country is safer now than it was before the terrorist attacks remains pretty much unchanged from two years ago: 42% say the country is more safe, compared to 41% in September 2004; 32% say the country is about as safe, compared to 31% two years ago; and 23% say the country is less safe, compared to 27% two years ago. Our pollsters point out that voters in the Northeast, the region most directly affected by the attacks, feel as safe as voters in other regions of the country.
The White House casts tonight's address as part of the President's ongoing effort to build support for the war in Iraq as central to the broader war on terror, an effort which will culminate with his appearance at the United Nations on September 19. Public opinion on whether the war on terror has succeeded in disrupting international terrorism remains roughly where it was in September 2002. Today, 15% say the WOT has succeeded in disrupting international terrorism "a great deal," compared to 18% four years ago; 26% say it has succeeded "quite a bit," compared to 25% four years ago; 32% say "just some," compared to 36% four years ago; and 18% say "very little," compared to 15% four years ago.
The Administration lately has tried to claim credit for the absence of another attack since September 11, 2001, but only 32% of registered voters give the Administration and its policies "all" or "most of" the credit for that fact. Forty-five percent give the Administration and its policies "some of" the credit, while 21% give them "very little" credit. The poll was conducted from September 8-10 of 602 registered voters and has a margin of error of +/-4%.
By the time he speaks tonight, Bush will have laid wreaths at Ground Zero; in Shanksville, PA; and at the Pentagon, among other events. His primetime speech, per White House spokesperson Tony Snow, will not be political -- "there are no calls to action, there are no attempts to segregate Democrats from Republicans." Bush will talk about "how September 11th reshaped the way in which we view the growing menace of what we now refer to -- the Islamist terrorist threat represented by bin Laden, Zarqawi and others, and that as a nation we don't have the luxury of sitting around and waiting for them to hit us again." The speech pits Bush against Monday Night Football (Washington Redskins vs. Minnesota Vikings), and also will cause ABC to interrupt part two of its broadcast of its controversial September 11 docudrama.
Vice President Cheney stays close to home, observing the anniversary at events at the White House and Pentagon. Members of Congress attend an observance at the Capitol.
And candidates facing tough primaries tomorrow in places like Rhode Island and Maryland will have to finesse hitting the campaign trail today. Moderate GOP Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island may lose his party's nomination to conservative Steve Laffey, furthering the anti-incumbent storyline of this cycle and potentially costing Republicans this Senate seat. The party's Senate campaign committee has suggested they would see better races on which to bet their resources this fall than on helping Laffey win in this blue state.
In Maryland, it's Democrats who will be watching the outcome of their Senate primary between leading contenders Rep. Ben Cardin and former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, with their chances of retaining the seat potentially hanging in the balance as Cardin is believed to be the stronger general election candidate. An Mfume win would set up an unprecedented contest between two African-American major-party nominees.
More from First Read to come -- check back here after 9:00 am. Got calendar?