WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush may be a lame duck and his Republican party a minority in Congress, but they showed this week that with deft use of the "Osama card" they can still wield a powerful political hand.
A Democratic attempt to push through new restrictions on government eavesdropping collapsed in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, after Republican opponents launched a ploy that would have forced the bill's supporters to cast a vote seeming to side with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Democrats cried foul and pulled the bill from consideration. They vowed to press on, but Republicans quickly claimed victory, predicted the measure was dead and called for a bipartisan rewrite.
Bush had also lobbied aggressively against the measure, warning that it would weaken the United States in the fight against terrorists.
"It's sort of that Pavlovian instinct, every time the president says you're soft on terror, they (the Democrats) roll over and play dead," said Caroline Fredrickson of the American Civil Liberties Union.
In portraying Democrats as soft on bin Laden, the Republicans used a strategy conceived by Bush political guru Karl Rove after the September 11 attacks. He told party members then that "we can go to the American people on the issue of winning this war" on terrorism.
The approach helped Republicans win control of the Senate and gain seats in the House in 2002 elections and keep the White House in 2004.
It failed to keep Democrats from capturing Congress in 2006, when many elections were decided by the unpopular war in Iraq and Republican corruption scandals.
But Republicans have not given up hope they can win again with the terrorism card, Brookings Institution congressional analyst Thomas Mann said.
"They'll have a hard time doing that in 2008 unless the Democrats give them something to work with, and that's what you're seeing here," he said, referring to the eavesdropping debate.
"The Republicans framed the choice in a way that was tailor-made for campaign ads," he said.
The Republican maneuver would have delayed consideration of the bill while it was rewritten to say the measure was not intended to block surveillance of "Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda or any other foreign terrorist organization."
Democrats wanting to reject the motion and immediately pass the bill would have appeared to have been voting in favor of bin Laden.
The risk of voter backlash was real for Democrats from conservative districts who face close races, Mann said. "In the trade-off between security and liberty, security still wins with most voters," he said.
But Fredrickson said polls show Americans are now more worried about civil liberties and that people were concerned that the Bush administration had gone too far.
She said Democrats could have passed their eavesdropping bill "if they had had the confidence in themselves and in their positions in protecting constitutional rights and civil liberties."
Instead, she said, they succumbed to "panic attacks."
Democrats have also tried to use bin Laden to cudgel Republicans. The party puts out a daily reminder that the mastermind of the September 11 attacks has not been caught, but it has had little political resonance.
Security analyst P.J. Crowley of the Center for American Progress said homeland security "is still considered a wedge issue" -- capable of dividing Americans politically and helping to win elections. "That is unfortunate and it is unnecessary," he said.
Democratic Rep. Jane Harman of California expressed a similar sentiment during debate on the eavesdropping bill on Wednesday, endorsing the Democratic version but indicating she would have preferred a bipartisan approach to the bill.