updated 9/11/2006 5:18:19 PM ET 2006-09-11T21:18:19

Lawmakers stood side by side on the steps of the Capitol and belted out an impromptu rendition of "God Bless America" after the terrorist attacks five years ago.

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Democrats and Republicans pulled together, as did the country at large. "We had an astonishing moment of unity," former President Clinton said Monday.

But now, the two political parties couldn't be further apart.

On the fifth anniversary of the terror attacks, Democrats and Republicans struggled for the upper hand on what has become the main issue of the midterm campaigns - the war in Iraq and its relationship with the broader battle against terrorism.

Politicizing denied
Both sides insist they aren't politicizing the anniversary. And numerous commemorative events were held at which political harmony was emphasized. Lawmakers even planned an encore session on the Capitol steps.

But then things got back to business as usual.

With control of the House and Senate hanging in the balance, the political rhetoric from the two parties is often 180 degrees apart.

Republicans assert that President Bush's leadership has made the nation safer from terrorist attack. Democrats argue America is less safe. They accuse Republicans of failed policies that have cost thousands of U.S. lives, and they depict Iraq as a diversion from the war on terror - not the main front Bush claims.

Danger of over-politicizing
"It's a problem of lack of will, of lack of technology and, particularly, lack of focus," Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the head of the Senate Democrats' campaign efforts, said Monday.

Partisanship has rarely been more in-your-face. Old saws like "politics stops at the water's edge" have been discarded.

Yet over-politicizing the 9-11 attacks and the war on terror "is a danger both parties face," said Tom Rath, a Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire.

Rath said that many people in his largely conservative state accept Bush's argument that the war in Iraq and the war on terror are linked, but don't like to see too much partisanship injected.

Spirit of bipartisanship
The fifth anniversary itself helped "sober people up for a day," Rath said. "Despite how either side might want to spin it, the fact is that people remember where they were, what they were doing, how they felt. And I think that's going to make it harder to use it in a partisan sense for either side."

What happened to that spirit of bipartisanship?

"What happened to the spirit is life returned to normal in many ways, and people ended up having political disputes," suggested White House spokesman Tony Snow. "It's human nature."

Bush's 9/11 events came midway through his three weeks of barnstorming to try to rekindle support.

On the fifth anniversary of the terror attacks, Democrats and Republicans struggled for the upper hand on what has become the main issue of the midterm campaigns - the war in Iraq and its relationship with the broader battle against terrorism.Republicans are focusing on national security, a tactic that brought them wins in 2002 and 2004. Democrats are seeking to capitalize on growing public unhappiness with Iraq and falling confidence in Bush.

Against that background, the rhetoric is flashing code red on both sides.

Bush has compared Osama bin Laden to Lenin and Hitler and accused critics of not learning some of the grimmer lessons of history.

GOP strategy
Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accuse anti-war Democrats of being defeatists and appeasers, evoking memories of British overtures to cut a deal in the 1930s with Nazi Germany.

"We have no intention of ignoring or appeasing history's latest gang of fanatics trying to murder their way to power," the vice president said Monday at a Pentagon ceremony.

Such comparisons "are designed to make listeners think of George W. Bush as Winston Churchill, and to compare his critics with the discredited Neville Chamberlain," said Stephen Cimbala, a Penn State University professor who studies war and its impact on domestic politics.

"The stretched comparisons with World War II obscure the real challenges that the United States must face in the 21st century," Cimbala said.

Neither side has yet to make a convincing case, said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "Republicans who argue that the country is safer can't really point to a major plot that's been foiled or point to anything they did to make it so. Democrats, on the other hand, don't have a conspicuous failure to point to. It's not as if we had a Sept 11 II."

Republicans assert that Democrats want to "cut and run," even though Democrats are divided on terms for withdrawal. Republicans themselves face divisions, with some GOP moderates - particularly in Northeastern states - breaking with the administration on Iraq.

Democratic approach
Democrats criticize Republicans for wanting to "stay the course," although Republicans insist they've made midcourse corrections to deal with changing circumstances.

No matter who wins in November, congressional margins seem likely to be thin. That could make it even harder to reach bipartisan accord on anything, especially if Republicans lose control of the House.

"For Republicans, if you're out there running a campaign the central focus of which is `Democrats are traitors,' it's going to be a little bit difficult to get them to support you on almost anything else," said political analyst Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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