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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The government has done "a helluva job" guarding America, Vice President Dick Cheney said on Sunday, as President George W. Bush prepared to visit Ground Zero amid an election-year debate on whether the country is safer five years after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Cheney and other top administration officials sought on the eve of the anniversary to promote what they say is progress in protecting against a second Sept 11.
"I don't know how you can explain five years of no attacks, five years of successful disruption of attacks, five years of defeating the efforts of al Qaeda to come back and kill more Americans. You have got to give some credence to the notion that maybe somebody did something right," Cheney told NBC's "Meet the Press."
He added: "We've done a helluva job here at home in terms of homeland security."
But many Americans have doubts. ABC News said a poll it conducted found the number of Americans who think the country is safer now than four years ago had dropped to about 52 percent from around 88 percent previously.
Democrats charge the Iraq war has sucked away billions of dollars that could have been spent to improve domestic security, served as a breeding ground for terrorists, left Osama bin Laden still at large and exposed Afghanistan's U.S.-backed government to a renewed threat from the Taliban.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said Bush had used the attacks for political gain ahead of November elections in which Democrats see a good chance to take control of one or both chambers of the U.S. Congress from Republicans.
"We think the president has played too much politics," he said. "They think they can't win the elections unless they talk about terrorism all the time."
Dean said the administration had got bogged down in Iraq when it should have been going "full-scale" after Osama bin Laden.
The Washington Post reported on Sunday that the trail for bin Laden has gone "stone cold" and that U.S. commandos looking for him have not gotten a credible lead on his whereabouts in more than two years.
Bush's approval ratings soared and his presidency was altered forever after he stood in the ruins of the World Trade Center days after the 2001 attacks and sought to rally the country by shouting into a bullhorn.
But the unity that arose as Americans grieved those killed in the hijacked airplane attacks has long since given way to sharp divisions over the Iraq war and Bush's approval ratings slid as U.S. casualties in Iraq rose.
Top administration officials argued that overthrowing Saddam Hussein was justified even though the promised weapons of mass destruction were never found.
"One cannot imagine a Middle East that would be different and would not be a place in which extremism thrives without Saddam Hussein's removal and the chance for a different kind of Iraq," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on CBS.
In a two-day tour of all three Sept 11. crash sites -- the World Trade Center, Pentagon and the field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where United Flight 93 crashed -- Bush will strive to put aside partisan acrimony, if only temporarily.
He has no prepared remarks for the visits, according to White House spokesman Tony Snow. Bush will attend a Sunday prayer service in New York and visit firefighters on Monday.
He will save his formal remarks for a televised speech on Monday night.
The invasion of Iraq soured relations between the United States and much of Europe, but European leaders on Sunday returned to the brief unity that followed the attacks.
In a letter to Bush, French President Jacques Chirac expressed "the friendship and solidarity of the French people with the American people."
"Together we are pursuing our determined struggle against this plague which nothing ever can justify," he wrote.
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