WASHINGTON — Democrats are eager to score points with voters this fall by talking about President Bush's handling of the Middle East, Hurricane Katrina and gas prices. On Monday, Bush showed that he too is eager to discuss those knotty topics -- but he framed them as winners for Republican candidates in November, even if polls show voters disagreeing now.
During his third extended question-and-answer session with reporters in as many weeks, Bush underscored GOP strategists' hopes that even a president plagued by low approval ratings can use his bully pulpit to fill the airwaves with a message designed to help the party's candidates.
On each topic, Bush acknowledged public anxiety. But he defended his record and, particularly on national security, accused Democrats of weakness.
"I will never question the patriotism of somebody who disagrees with me," Bush said. "This has nothing to do with patriotism. It has everything to do with understanding the world in which we live."
He invoked one of Democrats' favorite topics -- the National Security Agency's warrantless domestic surveillance, which a federal judge ruled unconstitutional last week -- as a way to ridicule his opponents while tying Iraq to his broader foreign policy of targeting terrorists.
"Those who heralded the decision not to give law enforcement the tools necessary to protect the American people simply don't see the world the way we do," Bush said.
Monday's hourlong news conference, held in a temporary briefing room across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, was the latest effort by Bush to reassure voters who have grown wary of his leadership on the foreign and domestic fronts.
Although he has often been accused of avoiding critical questioners, Bush's appearance suggested he was settling into a pattern of regular, wide-ranging interactions with reporters in which he can appear confident and presidential.
Asked how fuel prices might affect the GOP's hold on Senate and House majorities, Bush said, "The strategy is to recognize that dependency upon crude oil ... in a global market affects us economically here at home, and therefore, we need to diversify away as quickly as possible."
He cited his administration's push for expanded tax credits for the purchase of hybrid fuel vehicles, encouragement of the use of ethanol in place of crude oil, and support for legislation to spur construction of oil refineries -- a bill strongly opposed by Democrats when the House approved it by only two votes in October.
Asked about the slow pace of recovery in New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities devastated a year ago by Katrina, Bush promised that millions of dollars in housing grants were on the way, and he defended the federal commitment of more than $110 billion overall.
"The place where people, I'm sure, are going to be most frustrated is whether or not they're going to get the money to rebuild their homes," said Bush, who plans to spend a night on the Gulf Coast next week to mark the anniversary of the storm. "And my attitude is, we've appropriated the money, and now we'll work with states to get the money."
Democrats have pointed to the Katrina response as evidence of administration incompetence and insensitivity to African Americans, who accounted for most of the storm's victims. Some conservatives, however, have balked at Bush's promises to spend billions on recovery.
Monday's session was dominated by discussion of the Middle East, including the situation in Iraq and the tenuous cease-fire between Israel and the Hezbollah militia.
Bush called for the disarming of Hezbollah, which launched hundreds of rockets at northern Israel from southern Lebanon over four weeks before the cease-fire took effect last week.
But with the group receiving help from Iran and Syria -- and with the Lebanese government lacking the political and military power to intervene -- Bush conceded the process might be long and difficult.
He also acknowledged that further negotiations would be needed before France and other members of a proposed international force would be willing to play a role.
"First things first," he said, "is to get the rules of engagement clear so that the force will be robust to help the Lebanese."
On Iraq, Bush argued that the outcome of the war and the extent to which the United States remains engaged are central not just to that nation's future, but to America's security.
"The question facing this country is ... do we, one, understand the threat to America?" Bush asked. "In other words, do we understand that ... failed states in the Middle East are a direct threat to our country's security?
"And secondly, will we continue to stay engaged in helping reformers, in working to advance liberty, to defeat an ideology that doesn't believe in freedom? And my answer is, so long as I'm the president, we will."