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Harman PAC to Boost Security Focus

As part of the Democrats’ political makeover on national security, Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, today will launch a new leadership political action committee to cultivate and elect defense-minded Congressional candidates.

Harman’s SecureUS PAC will serve as a think tank and fundraising committee for Democratic candidates and provide those Congressional hopefuls with training, research and policy expertise on national security matters. The California Democrat has enlisted a handful of Democratic military and defense heavyweights to serve on the advisory committee, including former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, retired Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy and former Defense Secretary William Perry. The PAC is scheduled to be unveiled at 12:30 p.m. today at the National Press Club.

“I think this is the best way I can contribute to adding numbers to the ranks of Democrats in the House,” Harman said Wednesday.

The creation of the SecureUS PAC comes as the minority party seeks to better communicate its positions on national security policies heading into 2006, and to reverse public perceptions that Democrats lack vision on those matters.

Many Democrats believe their 2004 election losses resulted from their failure to present a strong national security platform.

“In 2004, Democrats didn’t have compelling arguments on national security and defense,” said a Democratic consultant familiar with SecureUS PAC. “It was public enemy No. 1. Across the board, this has been the constant criticism of the party.”

This source added that Harman is the right person to try to turn things around for the party, given her policy background, Congressional experience and “street cred” within the intelligence community.

“Harman is in a great position to lead this charge,” the adviser said.

Harman said she knows firsthand how important security issues can play in elections — not just from her committee experience, but also from her own campaign history.

The California Democrat, first elected in 1992, said were it not for her strong positions on security matters, she couldn’t have won enough Republican support to survive re-election in 1994 when the GOP won control of both chambers of Congress in a landslide.

But Harman said the issue really hit home last November when Democrats lost ground in the House and Senate and failed to retake the White House. “It occurred to me Democrats must and can do a better job,” she said.

“It’s our legacy,” she said. “Remember somebody named [Woodrow] Wilson, [Harry] Truman, FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt], [John] Kennedy and [Bill] Clinton? These were presidents who took muscular positions and some waged the major wars of the 20th century, but they also understood how to frame the international order and keep the peace.”

Electoral politics aside, the move also comes as Harman faces an internal political battle to retain her ranking member slot on the powerful select Intelligence Committee. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who preceded Harman on the job, has privately indicated she intends to replace her fellow Californian next Congress, even though House rules allow Harman to hold the post indefinitely.

Sources say Harman would like to keep the ranking job, but Pelosi believes her colleague has campaigned too aggressively for it. The Minority Leader also has to contend with Democratic Caucus politics, given that Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) is next in line for the post. Hastings is a veteran of the Intelligence Committee and a prominent member of the Congressional Black Caucus who has many allies pushing for his advancement.

Many centrist and conservative Democrats say Hastings, while well qualified, may be too liberal for the job at a time when the party is trying to gain influence on intelligence policies. Harman is a moderate who has taken to the television circuit and become one of the party’s strongest voices on security matters.

One Democratic strategist said while it is unclear whether Harman’s latest political efforts will have any influence on Pelosi’s decision about the ranking member slot, it will “show her leadership within the world of intelligence experts and talking heads.”

“Jane Harman didn’t do this with Nancy Pelosi in mind,” the source said. “This is part of a larger effort to show a commitment to the issue and the Caucus, and to continue to help Democrats deal with an issue that has been an Achilles’ heel for the party.”

Harman has kept quiet about the potential committee shuffle, only to insist that she is now and will continue to be passionate about intelligence and security issues. She emphasized that the creation of the PAC is not about her, but rather about helping elect Democratic challengers and incumbents from districts in which defense and security issues will likely make a difference.

She said the PAC will seek to help candidates running in areas with large numbers of military veterans, big military bases or significant employment in defense contracting. Organizers say they have yet to determine how much money will be raised or how many candidates the leadership committee will help this cycle.

“This is not just a fundraising committee, [and] this is not just a traditional leadership committee to propel Jane Harman into student government,” Harman said. “It’s not about me. It’s about a way I can be helpful leveraging extremely smart people and messaging issues I have proved works in tough districts.”

SecureUS PAC is one of several recent efforts by top House Democrats to bulk up the party’s profile on national security issues. Last month, Harman joined Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and a band of about a dozen moderate Democrats in unveiling a wide-ranging party vision for defense, intelligence and security policies.

For their part, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also have turned to prominent national security experts, including Perry and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, for advice on how best to identify issues and talk about Democratic positions.

Harman’s effort, in the meantime, will focus on Democratic campaigns at the grass-roots level. Organizers say it will help candidates across the country with communicating on issues such as improving homeland defense, detecting and disrupting terrorist networks, reducing the likelihood of nuclear attack, encouraging democracy across the globe, and strengthening the training, equipment and pay of U.S. armed forces.

The PAC will do this through a variety of programs, including polls and research projects, policy briefings, seminars, position papers, and media and debate preparation.

In addition to Holbrooke, Perry and Kennedy, Harman also has brought in as advisers Graham Allison, a leading expert on nuclear nonproliferation and former Clinton administration assistant secretary of Defense, former Democratic Sens. Bob Graham (Fla.) and Gary Hart (Colo.), and Bernard Schwartz, a leading technology and national security expert and chairman of Loral Space & Communications.

Harman also has asked Mark Mellman, a prominent Democratic strategist, to serve as SecureUS PAC’s pollster.

Kennedy, the retired general, said Wednesday that Harman’s effort will help the party both politically and substantively. She said it will help Democrats “look at new ideas, discuss these complex threats, look at new strategies and train Democratic candidates — not only on how to talk about it, but shape the policies more effectively.”

“I think it will change the perceptions of Democrats, but more importantly it will give Americans who are concerned about safety and security a much more hopeful message,” said Kennedy, the highest ranking woman to have served in the Army. “The Democratic message is much more positive and productive than the one we’ve been seeing out the Republicans over the last five or six years.”