Moving into the November elections, terrorism and foreign policy were viewed by the Bush Administration as the trump card issues that could lift slowly-rising-but-still-low poll numbers and minimize the White House's drag on GOP candidates in local races.

As the Institute has documented in our report "The South at War" and elsewhere, this is especially true in the South, the region most impacted by foreign policy issues.

But as the New York Times reports, this critical battle -- which could be decisive in the fall -- isn't going as the GOP had hoped:

President Bush and Congressional Republicans spent the last 10 days laying the foundation for a titanic pre-election struggle over national security, and now they have one. But the fight playing out this week on Capitol Hill is not what they had in mind.

Instead of drawing contrasts with Democrats, the president's call for creating military tribunals to try terror suspects --ó a key substantive and political component of his fall agenda -- has erupted into a remarkably intense clash pitting some of the best-known warriors in the Republican Party against Mr. Bush and the Congressional leadership. [...]

Democrats have so far remained on the sidelines, sidestepping Republican efforts to draw them into a fight over Mr. Bush's leadership on national security heading toward the midterm election. Democrats are rapt spectators, however, shielded by the stern opposition to the president being expressed by three Republicans with impeccable credentials on military matters: Senators John McCain of Arizona, John W. Warner of Virginia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

In some ways, the opposition of Sens. Warner and Graham is more important than McCain, an on-and-off foe of Bush who's viewed as a maverick. But the vocal outcry of Warner and Graham, hailing from deeply military Southern states and holding reputations as solid conservatives, poses more of a problem:

On one side are the Republican veterans of the uniformed services, arguing that the president's proposal would effectively gut the nearly 60-year-old Geneva Conventions, sending a dark signal to the rest of the world and leaving United States military without adequate protection against torture and mistreatment.

On the other are the Bush administration and Republican leaders of both the House and Senate who say new tools are urgently needed to pursue and interrogate terror suspects and to protect the covert operatives who play an increasingly important role in chasing them.

Given the odds in that match-up, how will the White House respond? Here's what conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan reported earlier this week:

Next week, I'm informed via troubled White House sources, will see the full unveiling of Karl Rove's fall election strategy. He's intending to line up 9/11 families to accuse McCain, Warner and Graham of delaying justice for the perpetrators of that atrocity, because they want to uphold the ancient judicial traditions of the U.S. military and abide by the Constitution. He will use the families as an argument for legalizing torture, setting up kangaroo courts for military prisoners, and giving war crime impunity for his own aides and cronies. This is his "Hail Mary" move for November; it's brutally exploitative of 9/11; it's pure partisanship; and it's designed to enable an untrammeled executive.