WASHINGTON President Bush is centering his re-election campaign on his leadership of the war against terror, and that's why the stakes were so high for him and Vice President Richard Cheney in their three-hour-plus session with the Sept. 11 commission.
Although participants in Thursday's closed-door session in the Oval Office reported the proceedings to be cordial, even lighthearted at times, the panel of five Republicans and five Democrats has the potential to deliver a heavy blow to the president later this year in the thick of the presidential race.
The panel studying the 2001 terror attacks issues its final report July 26 the same day the Democratic National Convention opens in Boston.
Bush supporters worry that the panel's findings will hand Democrats a golden opportunity to step up their criticism of the president's national security stewardship.
''Any report before the election has some risk,'' said Republican consultant Scott Reed. But Reed also said the commission ''seems to be playing it straight in a bipartisan manner. And they're a pox on everyone's house.''
Many people close to the investigation expect the report to fault both the current administration and the preceding Democratic Clinton administration, in particular the FBI and the CIA, for failing to do more to confront the pre-Sept. 11 threat of the al-Qaida terror network.
But there's a big difference. Bush is on the November ballot; Clinton isn't.
Bush also could be vulnerable to the allegation by former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke and others that an obsession with Iraq's Saddam Hussein led him to wage a misguided war against Iraq that diverted resources away from fighting terrorism.
Bush has made his performance as a wartime president and the assertion that the world is safer with Saddam out of power a guiding theme of his re-election campaign.
If the commission's report undercuts this central premise, it could be politically damaging to a president who is running hard to keep his job.
As the president was meeting with the Sept. 11 panel, Democrats in the Senate were decrying the deteriorating situation in Iraq a year after Bush stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier and declared major combat over.
''Instead of keeping murderous al-Qaida terrorists on the run, the invasion of Iraq has stoked the fires of terrorism against the United States and our allies,'' said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.
In a brief meeting with reporters in the Rose Garden after his testimony, Bush was asked if he could say with any confidence that there are no al-Qaida terrorists in the United States today. ''No, I can't say that,'' he responded.
He said that was one question the commission didn't ask him.
Republican pollster Frank Luntz said he thinks Bush helped himself by meeting with the full commission and then responding to reporters' questions afterward. ''It showed confidence, that he wasn't afraid to answer tough questions and it shows accountability, that he's willing to explain why decisions were made,'' Luntz said. ''Those are the essential attributes in this election campaign.''
Bush agreed under pressure from victims' families and the commission to answer questions from all panel members, but insisted that Cheney be at his side and that no electronic recording be made.
Critics ridiculed the arrangement as a ploy to help both men keep their stories straight. But Bush retorted: ''If we had something to hide, we wouldn't have met with them in the first place.''
Some Democrats on the commission who were outspoken in their criticism of the administration in open meetings were reserved after Thursday's session. Democrat Richard Ben-Veniste called it ''a very cordial meeting.''
Bush and Cheney had the home-field advantage in summoning their interrogators to the Oval Office, the symbolic seat of the presidency.
''Being in the Oval Office is an impressive thing. It does limit what people feel they can say,'' said James Thurber, a political science professor at American University. ''We remember when (then House Speaker) Newt Gingrich used to go to the Clinton White House. He would scream and yell, and then he went inside and rolled over like a puppy.''
Tom Raum has covered national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973.
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