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Democrats Say Bush Aide Uses War for Political Gain
ALISON MITCHELL . NY Times . 20 january 2002

Richard A. Gephardt, right, with Terry McAuliffe at the Democratic National Committee meeting on Saturday.

WASHINGTON, Jan. 20— Democratic leaders today pledged an election-year struggle over economics and domestic policy even as they assailed the president's chief political adviser for telling Republicans that President Bush's handling of terrorism could be an important campaign theme.

In a fiery speech at the Democrats' winter meeting, Representative Richard A. Gephardt, the House minority leader, recalled how the two parties stood "shoulder to shoulder" in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack.

He denounced as "a shameful statement" Mr. Rove's advice to Republicans at their own winter session in Austin, Tex., on Friday that on military and security issues they could "go to the country" because "Americans trust the Republican Party to do a better job of keeping our communities and families safe."

"I hope the president will set the record straight," Mr. Gephardt said. "We've got to stand together against terrorism. This is no partisan issue."

With the hall cheering and applauding, he invoked the troops overseas and said: "These young people in Afghanistan are not fighting for the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. They're fighting for the greatest country that has ever existed on earth. That's the United States of America."

At the same time, Mr. Gephardt and other Democrats drew sharp battle lines with the president over the state of the economy, noting the return to federal deficits and the rise in unemployment in the year since Mr. Bush took office.

"We're not discussing anymore what to do with the surplus," Mr. Gephardt said. "The surplus is magically gone. Now, we're having that tired, troubled discussion that we used to have for 20 years of what are we going to do about the deficit? How are we going to save Social Security? What are we going to do about Medicare? How are we going to take care of health insurance for the unemployed?"

Mindy Tucker, a Republican spokeswoman, said Mr. Rove had simply been counseling Republicans that Mr. Bush had given them a positive record of accomplishments to run on, from his handling of the war on terrorism to his domestic agenda.

The Democrats met at the start of an unsettled election year with three dozen governors' offices and control of Congress at stake. Mr. Bush's approval ratings remain high, and Republicans believe his standing will help them at the polls. At the same time, the economy lags.

Democrats argued today that while they should stand with Mr. Bush in the battle against terrorism, they should strongly emphasize their own stands and values on domestic issues. "The president's current standing in the polls in no way suggests a national embrace of Republican ideas, which we know only weaken and divide the nation," said Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

The Democrats showcased some of their victors in the 2001 election — Gov. James E. McGreevey of New Jersey; Mayor Rhine McLin of Dayton, Ohio; and the Los Angeles city attorney, Rocky Delgadillo — to say they can win even as the country rallies around Mr. Bush in the war effort.

The party also approved a plan to protect Iowa's and New Hampshire's early and influential positions in the presidential selection process and speed up the primary process. The new calendar could lead to a nominee by mid-March or earlier, and its supporters said it would give the party time to unify to fight Mr. Bush.

Michigan had tried to end the two states' positions at the front of the primary calendar. "It's a perpetual privilege," Senator Carl Levin of Michigan said. "It's a privilege that no state should have."

On display throughout the morning were signs of how the party planned to use the collapse of the energy trading company Enron to try to put Republicans on the defensive on issues including campaign finance, energy policy, Social Security and the re-emergence of federal deficits and to portray their opponents as the party of special interests.

"How about that Enron story?" Mr. McAuliffe said. "Folks, it's simply outrageous, and my heart goes out to the employees and shareholders who were victimized by a web of greed and deceit."

He said, "I do want to be fair though; there's no evidence yet that anyone in the Bush administration did anything improper in this case." But Mr. McAuliffe went on to draw what he called "interesting parallels between Enron and the administration it so generously supported."

"Think about it," he said, "risky investments, mountains of debt, accounting shenanigans and a little fuzzy math, then the folks at the top cash in while innocent working people are left holding the bag."

Democrats have blamed Mr. Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut for the return of deficits.

Mr. Gephardt and Mr. McAuliffe, long one of his party's premier fund- raisers, also called for legislation banning the unlimited and unregulated donations to political parties known as soft money. Mr. Gephardt said, "We are going to clean up politics in this country once and for all."

Mr. McAuliffe challenged Marc Racicot, the new chairman of the Republican Party, to join him to support the overhaul of the finance law, calling it "an opportunity for some good to come out of the Enron mess."

Mr. McAuliffe did not mention that Mr. Racicot himself had been a lobbyist for Enron. Mr. Racicot decided under criticism to stop any lobbying work while he was party chairman. But Mr. Gephardt, accusing House Republicans of trying to enact big tax breaks for corporations, said, "Maybe we wouldn't expect anything more out of a party that's now led by a highly paid lobbyist."

The campaign finance measure, sponsored by Senators John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Russell D. Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, passed in the Senate last year after years of stalemate. But it stalled in the House.

Republican leaders oppose the measure, saying it infringes on rights of free speech and will weaken the political parties. Ms. Tucker faulted the McCain-Feingold bill again today and said Republicans would support only a measure that "doesn't deny people the ability to participate in the process."

Republicans have struck back on the economy by repeatedly accusing Democrats of wanting to raise taxes.

Mr. McAuliffe sought to protect his party from that charge today, saying "Republicans will get away with these distortions over our dead bodies."