Published on Monday, May 19, 2003 by the Guardian/UK
You Let Al-Qaida Off Hook, Bush Told
Democrats attack presidential record on homeland security
by Matthew Engel in Washington
The attacks in Riyadh and Casablanca emboldened the Democrats contending for next year's presidential nomination to launch the most vigorous attack yet on President George Bush's war on terrorism.
The highlight of a hustings event involving most of the candidates in Iowa on Saturday came when they gave a standing ovation to a New York fire department paramedic who accused the president of breaking his promises and refusing to fund homeland security.
However, several leading candidates also took the chance to move on to what has been thought to be the president's strongest issue. Congressman Richard Gephardt said: "We are vulnerable to future attacks because this administration has not done its job."
Governor Howard Dean accused the White House of "strangling cities and towns" by refusing them money for protection.
Perhaps most significantly, the bombings offered a new impetus to the presidential campaign of Senator Bob Graham of Florida, the oldest, probably least-known and maybe the weirdest of the nine Democratic candidates challenging Mr Bush.
Mr Graham was reported to have stolen the show in Iowa with a powerful attack on the administration's decision to invade Iraq as a distraction. "They have conducted an ideological war in Iraq ... and at the same time they have stopped the war against terror," he said. "We have let al-Qaida off the hook."
What makes Mr Graham's attack unusually potent is that he was chairman of the Senate intelligence committee until the Democrats lost their majority there this year, giving him privileged access to classified information.
And over the past few months he has positioned himself as the prophet of American doom, with constant, well-informed attacks on the administration for leaving the country open to attack.
He warned the Senate last October that they would have blood on their hands if they failed to listen. Several Republican colleagues who specialize in intelligence issues have backed him up.
When he announced his candidacy this month, Mr Graham's main theme was that the president had chosen "to settle old scores" in Iraq instead of tackling what he has called "imminent" threats.
The renewed evidence of al-Qaida's viability gives the Graham campaign unexpected importance, partly by allowing other candidates to stake out similar territory.
Mr Graham is still not yet seen as a serious challenger to the frontrunners to the nomination, (presumed to be Senators John Kerry and John Edwards), partly because he is 66 and has had a heart operation, partly because - on all other issues - he has a dreary speaking style and partly because of his eccentricities.
He obsessively keeps a daily journal in color-coded notebooks. This is not a diary that might make a revelatory political bestseller: it focuses instead on noting every detail of his life, including what he eats for breakfast and which suit he wears.
Al Gore is believed to have rejected him as a possible vice-presidential candidate for fear that voters would find this too fertile a field for mockery.
Given that Mr Graham comes from Florida, this may have been a mistake. And the combination of Florida and credibility on terrorism may make him an irresistible candidate for the vice-presidential nomination next year.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003