WASHINGTON — The new Republican drive to focus attention on the Iraq war represents a high-stakes gamble: that doubts about the direction Democrats might set on national security exceed anxieties about the course charted by President Bush.
Through a series of high-profile efforts culminating Thursday with sustained House and Senate debates on the war, the White House and congressional Republicans are aiming to portray Democrats as too soft and too divided to steer the Iraq conflict to a successful conclusion.
But in the process, Republicans risk deepening their identification with a war that, surveys show, still sparks skepticism and concern among most Americans -- even after the spike in public support that followed the killing of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
In Thursday's debates on Capitol Hill, Republicans argued that Democrats would withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq too quickly. But they also provided the opportunity for a succession of Democrats to argue that Bush would stay too long.
The political fallout from this escalating confrontation in November's midterm election may pivot on which three words voters find more troubling: "cut and run" or "stay the course."
Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, said that although the debate illuminated divisions among Democrats, it also posed a clear political danger to Republicans.
"The Republicans have the potential of being seen as overreaching, of trying to stay in Iraq until we have it exactly the way we want it," Kull said.
The coordinated Republican push on Iraq, which included Bush's surprise visit to the country this week and a lengthy news conference after his return, highlights a core element of the GOP strategy for the fall's vote. Among Republican strategists, it is an article of faith that the party will fare better if it can shift the focus of voters from a backward-looking referendum on Bush's record to a forward-looking choice over the path America should follow.
Democratic candidates have been encouraging voters to use the election as a means of expressing discontent with the Bush administration's Iraq policy since the U.S. invasion more than three years ago. But Republicans want voters to ask which party they believe would be more likely to produce progress in Iraq in the months and years ahead.
"We think we can win that debate," said one senior GOP strategist familiar with White House thinking, who requested anonymity when discussing internal party deliberations. "We won it in 2004, and the Iraq war was not particularly popular then. It is better when we debate other people instead of debating events."
As part of this strategy, House GOP leaders offered a resolution Thursday asserting that U.S. interests would not be served by setting "an arbitrary date" for withdrawing troops from Iraq. The measure, due for a vote today, also expresses support for the Iraq war "as part of the global war on terror."
Senate Republican leaders, seeking to embarrass their Democratic colleagues, forced a vote on a resolution supporting the withdrawal of almost all U.S. troops by year's end -- a plan Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) has said he expects to propose next week. The resolution failed, 93-6.
In pressing their case on Iraq, Republicans have argued that most Democrats want to precipitously withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq before the country is secured -- a policy Republicans deride as "cutting and running."
Bush, at his news conference Wednesday, and GOP lawmakers, during Thursday's debates, argued that the key to success in Iraq was perseverance and determination.
"We know this: Our enemies are persistent and will stay the course," said Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.). "So that is the choice we face as a nation ... a choice between resolve and retreat."
Such pronouncements, GOP strategists say, taps into a traditional, if diluted, Bush strength -- the sense among most voters that he provides strong leadership -- as well as a traditional Democratic weakness -- doubts about the party's toughness on national security.
Yet the Republican stress on "staying the course" allowed Democrats to maintain that Bush and his congressional supporters were promising Americans only an open-ended commitment in Iraq.
The core Democratic strategy in the House debate was to catalog the costs and disappointments of the war -- Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) noted that the death toll for U.S. troops had reached 2,500 -- and to charge that the Republican position guaranteed more of the same.
"Instead of staying the course, we need to chart a smarter course," Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) said. "It's not weakness or retreat to realize the administration offers us only an endless spend-and-bleed policy."
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, declared: "Stand pat, stay put, status quo: That is the Republican policy."