Republicans turn to Ebola fears in campaign drive

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans are tapping into Americans’ fears about Ebola in their latest attacks on the competence of the Obama administration, adding a darker and more emotional edge to their main argument of the November elections.

Friday’s appointment of an “Ebola czar” did nothing to slow the criticism. Republican candidates see more opportunities in public alarm over the disease than in continuing to bash President Barack Obama’s signature health care law in the campaign’s final two weeks.

A chief question for Obama is whether to restrict travel from three West Africa countries bearing Ebola’s brunt. Scores of Republican candidates are demanding such restrictions. Several Democrats — citing polls showing wide public support — are joining them.

Obama isn’t going along. He says that travel bans would encourage people from affected areas to circumvent the efforts and then hide their recent whereabouts rather than submit to monitoring on U.S. soil. A few prominent Republicans, such as surgeon and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and former Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, agree with Obama.

But other Republicans predict the pressure for action will become too great.

“Travel restrictions are coming,” Rep. Billy Long declared at a congressional hearing on Ebola this week.

Candidates in two of the nation’s tightest Senate races left their states to attend the heavily covered hearing, a sign of Ebola’s political importance.

Rep. Bruce Braley, Iowa’s Democratic Senate nominee, touted an Iowa company that’s working on an Ebola vaccine.

Republican Rep. Cory Gardner of Colorado rejected the contention by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that banning air travelers from West Africa would encourage people to enter the United States by methods harder to track. “That’s like saying all children with chicken pox should stay in school so we know where they are,” Gardner said.

His race against Democratic Sen. Mark Udall crystalizes the partisan divide on Ebola. In a recent debate, Udall said doctors and other health experts should decide whether to “close borders…Senators and congressmen shouldn’t be making those decisions.”

But Gardner called for “an immediate travel ban” from the affected areas. When asked if there was a medical justification, Gardner called current policy “an unacceptable danger,” adding: “An overwhelming majority of the American people believe that we should put this in place.”

A Washington Post-ABC News poll found two-thirds of Americans supporting restrictions on travel from the Ebola-affected regions.

Some Republican campaign consultants see a great opening for their final push to re-elect embattled governors and gain the six new Senate seats needed to control that chamber.

“Opposing a travel ban is an unsustainable political position,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak. Democrats who stick with Obama, he said, “may want to update their resumes.”

The chief Ebola-stricken countries — Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — have no direct flights to the United States. The CDC says about 150 persons from those countries enter the United States daily, usually from major European airports.

Obama on Thursday said West Africans determined to reach the United States might resort to “broken travel — essentially breaking up their trip so that they can hide the fact that they have been to one of these countries where there is a disease in place. And as a result, we may end up getting less information about who has the disease.”

Nonetheless, dozens of Republican lawmakers, governors and candidates say non-U.S. citizens should be barred from entering the country if they’ve recently been in the Ebola-stricken areas.

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