CRAWFORD, Texas - Sensing a threat to President Bush's re-election, his national security adviser Condoleezza Rice will step into the arena where her former aide first made incendiary charges that Bush ignored pre-Sept. 11 warnings about al Qaeda.
Rice will be interviewed on CBS's "60 Minutes" -- the influential television news program where counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke a week ago accused Bush of mishandling the terror threat.
Allegations by Clarke, who worked for four presidents, struck at the core of what the Bush team viewed as their strongest case for a new White House term -- the president's credentials on national security.
"The Bush people are right to take this very seriously," said political analyst Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia. "If Clarke's charges really take hold, I can't imagine he'll be re-elected."
But Sabato said it was too early to tell how the issue would play out, with polls continuing to show Bush and his Democratic rival John Kerry in an extremely close race. The election is in November.
Clarke, who has written a best-selling book detailing his allegations, said Bush paid too little attention to the importance of pursuing al Qaeda in comparison to the Clinton administration. He aired his criticisms on news programs and then at a hearing held by the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001 attack that killed more than 3,000 people.
The White House last week launched a media blitz to try to counter the criticism. That effort will continue this weekend with appearances by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on morning talk shows, in addition to the Rice appearance.
Clarke is also slated to appear on Sunday talk shows.
Attempting to discredit Clarke, the White House has highlighted previous comments in which he spoke favourably of Bush's handling of the terror threat. And White House spokesman Scott McClellan called some of his comments "flat-out false."
Bush's Republican allies in Congress ratcheted up the attacks with a push to declassify testimony Clarke gave in 2002 that they said was at odds with his current statements.
PRESSURE BUILDS FOR RICE TESTIMONY
But Rice was facing pressures of her own that may be complicated by yet another television appearance.
Although she met privately with the 9/11 commission and may do so again, the panel is eager for her to testify publicly under oath. She has declined, citing the separation of powers between the White House and Congress.
The White House views the commission as an entity of Congress since it was created by the legislative body.
Democrats have seized on Rice's constant presence on television to question her decision not to testify.
Kerry, who was largely out of view last week on vacation as the Clarke saga unfolded, weighed in on Saturday with criticisms centering on Rice.
"If Condoleezza Rice can find time to do '60 Minutes' on television before the American people, she ought to find 60 minutes to speak to the commission under oath," he said.
But the calls for Rice to testify came from Republicans, too. On Saturday, John Lehman, a member of the 9/11 commission and a Republican, urged Rice to change her mind.
"I think the White House is making a political blunder, an important miscalculation of the political impact of this," Lehman told CNN. "Condoleezza Rice should testify before our commission."