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Terror Remains the No. 1. Issue

By Daniel Henninger

For the professional politician, carving and chiseling a path to the White House, the task at hand is figuring out what ails the collective mind of the American electorate, this week and when the 300th week of the campaign lumbers into view next year. Yesterday found candidates Biden, Dodd, Clinton, Obama, Brownback and Romney floating like tireless balloons through Fourth of July parades all over Iowa. After that, our 20 or so presidential diviners and their retinues will continue to belly-flop into towns across America, trying to connect, trying to discover the one thing that will still animate voters when the final bell rings Nov. 4, 2008.

How about this issue: cars filled with nails and tanks of propane gas, blown up by people whose goal in life is to murder Western infidels.

But I could be wrong. Two weeks ago, Mike Bloomberg's turn in the center of the political conversation came when he divested the GOP and declared to a group of Google employees out West, "Whoever out of those 20 becomes president I think has to do something about a country that I think is really in trouble." The trouble, as the mayor sees it, has to do with the country's "reputation" and its "go-it-alone mentality."

Maybe Mike Bloomberg has it right. Maybe the winning presidential issue will be getting into a better relationship.

This is an unusual election to handicap. Setting aside the trick of a candidate avoiding statements now that would look irretrievably dumb 15 months from now, the campaigns have to contend with an American public fixated on a paradox: About 70% of polled people say the country is on the "wrong track," notwithstanding that the scenery along the track includes some three years of strong-to-moderate economic growth, 4% unemployment and a stock market that's been on an upward march for three years. So what's the problem?

Two weeks ago when Mike Bloomberg was in the news, wisdom had it that the mind of the "independent voter" was the Rosetta Stone for decoding American politics. This past weekend the Washington Post outputted a massive and dense polling analysis of the independent voter. If one assumes as I do that the partisan intensity of our politics has widened the number of voters who feel the parties are "not speaking to them," then the Post's numbers may serve as a useful proxy for their views, at least between May 3 and June 3.

The generalization that emerges from the Post survey's data is that independent voters (this includes Democratic and Republican leaners) have deep concerns about . . . everything. Combining those who say an issue is "extremely important" to them or "very important" puts the totals well above 50% for health care, the economy, terrorism, immigration, taxes, corruption and of course "the situation" in Iraq, with a combined 89% importance ranking, most of it negative.

This is the Worry Wart vote, a condition brought on by spending too much time with politics. Now that electronic media--the Web, radio, TV--has made overdosing on politics unavoidable, Mike Bloomberg could reasonably conclude there is pay dirt in offering antidotes to the Worry Warts. In a speech in Los Angeles, Mayor Bloomberg tried to gather all this anxiety in one phrase: "Washington is sinking into a swamp of dysfunction."

Rethinking political management amid deep partisan division would be a dandy avocation if we lived in normal times, say Sept. 10, 2001. But we don't. Last weekend, the forces of civilization foiled planned barbarian bombings and mass death for innocent civilians in London and Glasgow. One month ago, they foiled a plot to blow up the gasoline fuel pipeline at JFK airport. A month before that they arrested six men, enraptured by jihadist videos, who concluded it was their life's goal to blow up soldiers at Fort Dix, N.J. Before that they foiled a well-advanced plot to demolish U.S.-bound airliners over the Atlantic. This week Spain completed its trial of 28 people charged with the 2004 Madrid train bombing that killed 191.

I haven't conducted a poll, but my guess is this is the real reason many in the U.S. feel the country is on the wrong track. The possibility of mass, mortal risk is the one constant in life today; it's always floating beneath the changing surface of stock prices, gasoline prices or Sen. Obama's blueprints for universal health care.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Journal's editorial board last week at our offices in lower Manhattan, Rudy Giuliani talked a lot about terrorism. It may well be that 9/11 made the Giuliani presidential run possible, but I think the better political comparison isn't New York in September 2001 but New York in 1993, when Mr. Giuliani unseated Mayor David Dinkins. He described it to us:

"I was elected to reduce crime. That was the rationale for my being mayor of New York. They weren't going to elect a Republican prosecutor in New York unless they were desperate. And they were desperate: It was, 'We'll even give him a chance to do it.' "

This was the period of screwing stacks of deadbolt locks onto apartment doors in New York. Amid this, Republican Giuliani defeated Democrat Dinkins by 49% to 46%. This means that a lot of New York liberals, beset by the loss of physical well-being, went into the voting booth, pulled the lever for Giuliani, and walked out to tell their friends, "I voted for Dinkins."

This isn't an endorsement for Rudy Giuliani. It's an explanation for why this candidate, despite the presumed baggage, has polled strongly for months. In his meeting with us, Mr. Giuliani said something else unexpected: "George Bush's speech on September 20, 2001 is still the best road map for what to do about terrorism."

That's right. It's not the economy this time, stupid. It's terrorism. No matter how low George Bush falls in the polls the next 18 months, "what to do about terrorism" is going to be the No. 1 voting issue in November 2008 because the Glasgow/JFK/Fort Dix/Heathrow/Madrid bombers are still going to be at play in November 2008.

This may well be the election decided by the Worry Wart Independents. But don't be surprised if a lot of them walk out of the voting booth that day and say with a straight face, "I voted to solve the health-care crisis." Right. They also voted for Dinkins.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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