For once, 9/11 attacks play small role in election

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By JULIE PACE, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — For the first time in a decade, the Sept. 11 attacks and the wars that resulted are not the focus of the presidential campaign.

President Barack Obama, who leads Republican Mitt Romney in polling on national security issues, may try to change that this fall as he seeks to sway undecided voters and traditional GOP constituencies in a tight race.

"In a world of new threats and new challenges, you can choose leadership that has been tested and proven," the president said last week while accepting the Democratic Party's nomination, attempting to draw a contrast with a GOP presidential ticket that has little foreign policy experience.

"I promised to refocus on the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11. And we have," Obama added. "A new tower rises above the New York skyline; al-Qaida is on the path to defeat; and Osama bin Laden is dead."

Tuesday marks the 11th anniversary of the attacks that left nearly 3,000 people dead and led to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Both campaigns will pull their largely negative television advertisements off the air for the day out of respect for 9/11 victims and their families. Obama will hold a moment of silence at the White House and attend a Pentagon memorial service; Romney will address the National Guard's annual conference, and Vice President Joe Biden will attend a memorial service at Shanksville, Pa., where one of the four hijacked flights crashed.

It will be a rare day on the campaign when terrorism, or national security for that matter, will be a center of attention.

Unlike the other presidential elections following the attacks, polls show those issues are a low priority for voters. A CBS News/New York Times survey this summer found 37 percent of voters called terrorism and security extremely important to their vote while 54 percent said the economy and jobs were that important.

It was much different eight years ago, the first presidential election after the attacks. Back then, about two-thirds of voters said protecting the country was more important than creating jobs when deciding their vote for president, according to an AP-Ipsos poll shortly before the 2004 election. President George W. Bush defeated Democratic challenger John Kerry in large part by convincing voters he was the best candidate to keep the country safe.

The 2008 election also focused on national security until the economy staggered during the campaign's final stretch.

Obama's early opposition to the Iraq war won him wide support from a combat-weary public. Republican Sen. John McCain ran on his military credentials while arguing that his Democratic opponent was naive and would be dangerous for the country.

Fast forward to the present.

Despite the strong economic focus, Obama's campaign says it still sees an opportunity to zero in on national security and terrorism in the final weeks of the campaign. And it's clear why it would want to: Polls show Obama leading Romney on national security and terrorism, issues where Republicans typically have an advantage.

Officials say national security issues resonate particularly well in battleground states with large military and veterans populations, including Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. The Obama campaign has been running television advertisements in those states focused on the president's policies for veterans, and Obama surrogates have held national security-focused events there, too.

Biden, whose son served in Iraq, has been making a point of highlighting the human costs of the wars that followed the 9/11 attacks. A frequently emotional Biden often lists the exact number of service members dead and wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama aides acknowledge that the election results will almost certainly hinge on the economy. But they say international issues are another avenue for drawing a contrast with Romney and appealing to voters who remain undecided less than two months from Election Day.

That's why they reacted quickly when Romney made no mention of Afghanistan or the 77,000 troops still serving there when he accepted the Republican presidential nomination last month.

"It's more than an omission," said retired Gen. Wesley Clark, an Obama supporter. "It reveals a severe lack of understanding about the job of president, doesn't reflect well on what kind of leadership you would bring and frankly it's just unbecoming of someone who wants to become commander in chief."

Clark predicted veterans, who typically lean Republican, would start shifting in Obama's favor between now and November. Gallup's tracking poll over the month of August showed Romney leading Obama 55 percent to 38 percent among veterans.

Romney has dismissed the criticism surrounding his convention address, saying he discussed Afghanistan during a speech to the American Legion the day before

He also urged voters to focus on policies, not speeches.

"I have some differences on policy with the president," Romney said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." ''I happen to think those are more important than what word I mention in each speech."

His campaign also disputes the notion that national security is one of Obama's strengths.

"It's only because President Obama's failure on the economy has been so severe that his manifold failures on foreign policy and national security have been overshadowed," Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said.

Romney's team says that while the Obama administration was successful in eliminating bin Laden, a host of other national security priorities remain unresolved: Iran is still in pursuit of a nuclear weapon, and a civil war rages on in Syria.

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Associated Press writer Philip Elliott, Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.

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Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC .

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