Thirty-five minutes after President Bush finished his surprise East Room announcement last week about plans for prosecuting some of the world's most prominent terrorists, White House and Republican officials convened a conference call of conservative TV pundits and other allies, and later of state party leaders around the country. A participant said listeners were urged to spread the word about the aggressive speech "by talking about it in the context of the election." The message: Republicans are strong, and Democrats are weak. The White House strategy isn't subtle. With Republicans worried about losing the House and conceivably even the Senate in November, the President is taking a big gamble that an unflinching focus on national security will be his party's political salvation. That approach helped Bush defy history in 2002 when the Republicans, the party in power, avoided midterm losses. Two years later, his re-election rode largely on reminding Americans that they were a nation at war. But will the gambit work one more time? Many Republicans harbor doubts, and a few dissenters are even steering clear of the President and his game plan. One problem with rerunning an old play is that the opposition figures out how to thwart it. Democrats, having largely steered clear of national-security issues in the 2002 and 2004 campaigns for fear their war reservations and civil-liberties concerns would brand them as effete, are embracing the topic, and they appear to have found their voice with a steady insistence that Iraq has been mishandled. Thus, for the first time in the five years since 9/11, national security is a jump ball.
Recognizing the stakes for his legacy and his party, Bush is dropping into key states and districts with a schedule so ferocious, he seems to be running for a third term. Retreat from his Iraq policy, he has argued, would mean that some 2,660 American soldiers "have given their lives for nothing." In an effort to convince an increasingly skeptical public that Iraq is a critical part of the broader war on terrorism, the Administration has declassified letters, videos and audiotapes of top al-Qaeda members talking about Iraq, including a message from Osama bin Laden in which he calls Iraq a "war of destiny between infidelity and Islam."
Deputy White House chief of staff Karl Rove, the architect one last time, says he is confident that voters will buy the President's message. "Given a choice between doing the job and walking away, they will want to do the job," Rove tells TIME. "Given a choice between winning and losing, the American people will always pick winning." But the trouble for Bush is that, at the moment, lots of folks think he lacks a winning formula. In a TIME poll last month, 63% of those surveyed disapproved of the President's handling of the Iraq war, and the figure was 51% for the war on terrorism. What's more, 54% thought the Iraq engagement was hurting U.S. efforts to combat terrorism.
Other polls have shown Bush losing security moms, NASCAR dads and plain ole Southern women--all groups that were tent poles in the coalition that re-elected the President. Voters cite a large stew of concerns, including gas prices and immigration. But political consultants say they find the sourness grounded in the war. "It's the only issue that matters," says a strategist working closely with the White House.