Only months ago, Democrats were targeting the controversial USA Patriot Act as an ideal issue to use in their campaign against President Bush, assailing the law as an intrusion on civil rights. But in a turnabout, the act has suddenly emerged as a cornerstone of Bush's reelection campaign, while Democratic rival Sen. John F. Kerry and others have toned down their criticism.
The Patriot Act is proving to be more popular in opinion polls than once expected, given its diverse range of critics. Also, both Democratic and Republican strategists now believe that public debate over the Patriot Act and other aspects of the nation's response to terrorism only enhance Bush's national security credentials, while threatening to paint Kerry as soft on terrorism.
The result is that the Democrats have lost what once seemed like a useful tool for rallying opposition to the president.
"There's a dangerous trap here for Democrats," said Jim Mulhall, a Democratic strategist working with independent groups targeting Bush. "It's a terribly unfair characterization, but ... if Democrats are not careful, they will sound more like they're worried about technical concerns than they are about locking up terrorists."
Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has recently been couching his positions on the law as "fixes," whereas in December the Massachusetts senator called for "replacing the Patriot Act with a new law that protects our people and our liberties at the same time." Kerry has even argued that his ideas would make the law, bashed repeatedly last year by nearly all the Democratic presidential contenders, tougher than it is currently.
Bush showcased his aggressive support for the Patriot Act last week, appearing in Buffalo, N.Y., with the federal prosecutor who uncovered a suspected terrorist cell dubbed the Lackawanna Six after the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and on the Pentagon.
Bush argued that the law "defends our liberty" against terrorists and should be strengthened. He said terrorists had been caught in part because of the new law, drawing applause from a crowd of invited guests.
"The true threat to the 21st century is the fact somebody is trying to come back into our country and hurt us," Bush said. "And we ought to be able to at least send a signal through law that says we're going to treat you equally as tough as we do mobsters and drug lords."
Passed with overwhelming support from lawmakers and signed by Bush within two months of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Patriot Act gives officials more powers in conducting searches and seizures and in sharing information.
It allows the government to cite terrorism and computer fraud as the basis for requesting wiretaps; allows roving wiretaps to follow suspects, no matter what telephones they use; and allows secret searches in which the authorities delay notifying a suspect.
Among other provisions, it allows the attorney general to detain any noncitizen believed to be a national security risk, in some cases for long periods of time.
One key provision aims to remove a legal "wall" that limited the sharing of information between criminal and intelligence investigators. Testimony before the independent Sept. 11 commission has suggested that the barrier inhibited authorities from learning more about the Sept. 11 hijackers before the attacks.
The Patriot Act has been an awkward issue at times for Bush, drawing heat from some in his own conservative base. Critics have included not only the Democratic presidential candidates and the American Civil Liberties Union, but also libertarians, advocates for smaller government and members of the National Rifle Assn.
Critics Versus the Polls
Many critics denounced the act as an intrusion on privacy rights and civil liberties.
Last fall, the very mention of Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft's name and his link to promoting the Patriot Act was easily the biggest applause-getter in Democratic rallies. When Ashcroft embarked on a national tour to highlight the law's benefits, he was greeted at nearly every stop by protesters.
But a series of new polls published last week have led strategists to conclude that the deftly named Patriot Act is a winner for Bush.
Those polls also gave the president a lead over Kerry, despite weeks of potentially damaging footage of deadly chaos in Iraq, tough questions about Bush's leadership on terrorism by the Sept. 11 commission and a new book suggesting Bush was intent on invading Iraq far earlier than was initially believed.
While the president's numbers have sagged on issues such as the economy and the war in Iraq, a Washington Post/ABC News survey found that 63% approved of the president's handling of the war on terrorism. In a Gallup Poll conducted for CNN and USA Today, more than twice as many respondents said they thought Bush would do a "good job" on terrorism as thought Kerry would.
And though polls have shown that certain aspects of the Patriot Act are unpopular when they are explained to voters, responses to broader questions suggest general support for the law.
More than six in 10 respondents to a February Gallup/CNN/USA Today survey said the law is just about right or does not go far enough, though only about one-fourth said it goes too far.
Experts think the law will grow in popularity, at least in the short term, as dramatic pictures of bomb blasts in Iraq, Spain and Saudi Arabia heighten fear that an attack could happen in the U.S. again.
Administration officials have even speculated openly in recent days, without revealing any evidence to back up their claims, that terrorists could be planning attacks to coincide with the presidential election in November.
"It's the only area where Bush gets positive numbers, and his strategy is to find every way to talk about the war on terror, whether it's the Patriot Act or Iraq," said Steve Murphy, a Democratic strategist who managed the unsuccessful presidential campaign this year of Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri.
The change in tone is evident in the words of Kerry. In December, weeks before the critical Iowa caucuses, Kerry delivered a blistering speech railing against key elements of the Patriot Act and chiding Ashcroft, telling a partisan crowd that the law should be replaced.
"At this very moment, an FBI agent could be rifling through every website you've ever visited, and you would never know it," Kerry said in his Iowa City speech.
"A Justice Department official in Washington could be reading every e-mail you've sent in the last few months -- and they wouldn't need a judge's permission or even a reason to do so," he added.
"Federal investigators could be demanding and receiving upon request your private hospital medical records," Kerry said. "Law enforcement officers could be entering your house while you are gone -- rifling through your possessions -- and leaving without every letting you know they had been there."
At the time, Kerry was struggling to explain why he voted for the law, parts of which are set to expire in 2005. He said it contained "good ideas," even taking credit for writing part of it, but that Bush and Ashcroft abused their new investigating powers for purposes beyond fighting terrorism.
"It clearly wasn't a perfect bill -- and it had a number of flaws -- but this wasn't the time to haggle. It was the time to act," Kerry said in December.
In recent days, though, Kerry's assessment has been delivered in a far more positive context.
After Bush used his weekend radio address recently to urge a continuation of the Patriot Act, Kerry issued a written statement listing ideas for "improving" and "fixing" the law by strengthening provisions on money laundering, cracking down on terrorists' assets, improving information-sharing policies and enhancing other sections that specifically target terrorists.
A Kerry spokesman insisted later that the candidate's message has not changed, arguing that it is the challenger, not the president, who brings the most muscular view of the Patriot Act to the race.
"The president is misleading America into thinking that the current law is doing all it needs to do," said Phil Singer, a Kerry spokesman. "The fact is that it's failed to address many of the problems that were exposed by 9/11, including the intelligence sharing problems that continue to plague the FBI, CIA and other security agencies."
Some who agreed with Kerry's early tough stands against the law's potential intrusions on civil liberties now say they are not quite sure where the senator stands.
"I'm concerned where Kerry will ultimately come down," said Laura Murphy, director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union. "There's going to be a bump in support [for the Patriot Act], and Kerry needs to come out informed and swinging the way he did in December."
Times staff writers James Rainey in Washington, Maria L. La Ganga in San Francisco and Matea Gold in New York contributed to this report.