After Bin Laden, Democrats Drive 9/11 Politics

VIDEO: 9 11 Remembered: Moment of Silence at the White
WATCH 9/11 Remembered: Moment of Silence at the White House

Speaking to the Republican convention in 2004, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said that on the morning of the worst ever terror attacks on U.S. soil, with "the flames of hell" burning overhead, having just realized "a human being on the 101st, 102nd floor was jumping out of the building," he turned to his police commissioner and said, "Thank God George Bush is our president."

"I say it again tonight," Giuliani declared. "I say it again tonight: Thank God that George Bush is our president!"

The party's relative silence on issues of war and national security at their national convention last month in Tampa, Fla., was a marked contrast to just eight years before, when Republicans from across the country gathered in midtown Manhattan, about three miles north of Ground Zero, to nominate President George W. Bush for a second term in the White House.

Less than a decade later, the tables have turned. A new ABC News poll shows Obama with a 51-40 percent lead over Romney on the question of whom registered voters prefer to handle terror threats. At this time in 2008, Republican candidate John McCain led Obama by 20 points on the same question. That's a 31-point swing in just four years.

You won't hear much crowing from President Obama or Joe Biden, or any of their high profile supporters today, the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Both the Obama and Romney campaigns have called off the dogs, pulling television ads and silencing surrogates for 24 hours.

But even as politics may seem to stop on Sept. 11 each year, the politics of 9/11 are, more than a decade after al Qaeda struck, always very much in play.

Four years ago, as the country prepared to change leaders for the first time since 9/11, there was a more concerted effort to display bipartisan unity.

Obama and his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, by then in the throes of their own heated campaign season, left the trail to attend commemorative services at Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. They laid flowers side-by-side in the morning, then briefly shared the stage during separate appearances at a panel discussion about public service at New York's Columbia University that night.

In an election season marked by some memorably ugly attacks, the candidates' solidarity managed to quiet some of the most skeptical observers.

There will be no joint appearances this year, no symbolic embraces. The campaigns never discussed it, the president having as little to gain in sharing the spotlight with Romney as the challenger did in being juxtaposed with the man who ordered the deadly raid on Osama bin Laden's Pakistani compound.

So the candidates will spend the bulk of their respective days on different sides of the continent -- about 2,280 miles between them.

Romney will fly from Illinois to swing-state Nevada, where he's slated to address National Guard Association members at their annual conference. Obama stays in Washington, scheduled to make stops at the Pentagon Memorial and meet wounded veterans at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in nearby Bethesda, Md.

The past four years have seen a drastic re-casting of the party roles. Democrats, for decades painted by opponents as "soft on national security," spent large parts of their convention talking up president's military bona fides. The Republican convention, by contrast, mostly avoided discussing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Romney's address did not mention the conflicts once.

When the Democrats convened the following week, what former President George W. Bush called the "War on Terror" was still in full effect, as the talking points suggested: A surge of American troops, as ordered by the president, had beaten back the Taliban in Afghanistan; a deadly campaign of drone strikes on the Pakistan border had decimated al Qaeda; and, of course, the big one -- Osama Bin Laden had been killed during a midnight raid, authorized without the permission of the government in Islamabad.

Romney might take a hard rhetorical line on Syria, China, and Russia, he might denounce America's "leading from behind" in Libya, Democrats said, but these things had actually happened, all under the guidance of President Obama.

John Kerry, who bore the brunt of Republican attacks on his ability to competently manage "national security" during his failed 2004 presidential run, seemed to thrill in returning the favor during his speech last week in Charlotte.

"No nominee for president should ever fail in the midst of a war to pay tribute to our troops overseas in his acceptance speech," Kerry said, making reference to Romney's omission. "They are on the front lines every day defending America, and they deserve our thanks."

And for moment, as senator from Massachusetts spoke, it almost sounded like 2004 again.