WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld unleashed yesterday one of the Bush administration's most caustic assaults yet on critics of the Iraq war, ramping up the Republican election-year attack against Democrats over national security.
The verbal broadside is part of an emerging pattern in which President Bush, attempting to transform the war into a winning election theme for his party, is using surrogates to deliver the most stinging criticisms of Democrats while sticking to milder - though no less disparaging - rhetoric himself.
Rumsfeld, speaking yesterday at the American Legion's annual convention in Salt Lake City, compared the president's war critics to Nazi-era appeasers. Warning against what he called "moral and intellectual confusion," Rumsfeld said that "some seem not to have learned history's lessons" as the nation confronts new threats. He did not mention any names.
"It seems that in some quarters, there is more of a focus on dividing our country than acting with unity against the gathering threats," Rumsfeld said.
His remarks came as Vice President Dick Cheney was accusing unnamed critics of "self-defeating pessimism," the second time in two days that he had used that description. This month, Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, said Democrats were "obstacles" to national security.
Bush has been quick to lash out at those who question his strategy in Iraq, but he couches his objections in the loftier terms of a statesman challenging critics of his global vision. He recently denounced Democrats' calls for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, but not before noting twice that they are "good, decent people." At a press conference last week, Bush said he would never question the patriotism of his critics.
Presidents often try to avoid appearing overly partisan in such situations. Analysts say Bush's approach is part of an orchestrated effort by Republicans: Attack Democrats on national security while keeping the president - whose low approval ratings could hurt his party's candidates this fall - from falling still lower in voters' estimation.
"It's a well-practiced strategy by past presidents - where tougher things are said by others and the more generous comments are made by the president," said John C. Fortier of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "It is meant to have the president portray to some extent the positives of the policy and to have surrogates show the negatives - in this case, of ignoring homeland security or being too much against the war and withdrawing too soon."
By arming others, such as Cheney, Rove and Ken Mehlman, the national party chairman, with cutting barbs and sending them into conservative strongholds, Republican strategists hope to stoke the enthusiasm of a conservative base that gives them high marks for keeping the country safe. That could help counter disaffection among Bush's core supporters - some of whom have been alienated by his immigration plan and the administration's willingness to approve large government programs and swollen spending measures.
Bush's allies also hope it sows doubt among fence-sitters about the Democrats' fitness to govern.
Bush is to speak tomorrow at the American Legion convention, where he is expected to repeat his broader message that the war in Iraq is inextricably linked to the fight against terrorism.
His top deputies have been crisscrossing the country delivering a harsher message. Cheney suggested this month that the primary victory of Ned Lamont, an anti-war Democrat, over Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a staunch supporter of Bush's Iraq policies, would "embolden al-Qaida types." A few days later, Rove warned Republican donors in Toledo, Ohio, that Democrats pose a threat to the nation's security.
"The problem for these Democrats is that their policies would have consequences and their policies would make us more, not less, vulnerable," Rove said, according to the Associated Press. "And in war, weakness emboldens your enemies and it's an invitation for disaster."
John C. Green, a University of Akron political scientist, called it "a campaign version of 'good cop/bad cop,' with the president strongly defending his policies but going easy on the Democrats, while other administration figures take a tough line. The likely reason is that the White House wants to improve Bush's personal image but at the same time go after the Democrats politically - both useful things in an election year."
White House officials contend that Bush has always worked to maintain a civil tone in the debate about the Iraq war and isn't going to change that as he seeks to make it a key theme for voters in November.
"Some have a different view from the president, and that doesn't mean they don't love the country as much as he does. But it does set up a debate about the direction of our country as we fight a global war on terror," said Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman.
Strategists see a more calculated effort by the president. His approach is a response to wide discontent over the war, they say, and an attempt to show openness to a widespread desire to change course in Iraq.
"The only difference in the language is that it makes the president perhaps look more flexible and more understanding and less hardened in his position," said Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio.
But if Bush is hoping to score points with his measured tone on Iraq - or by sending out surrogates to talk tough about it - his message isn't getting through, Fabrizio said, adding that only one in five voters believes that Bush has the right approach to the war.
"It makes [Bush] look less strident. ... The music is more soothing, but the words still don't connect" with voters' perceptions, Fabrizio said.
Democrats have worked to tie Bush to his surrogates' harsh statements. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, responding to Rumsfeld's speech in a statement yesterday, said: "The Bush White House is more interested in lashing out at its political enemies and distracting from its failures than it is in winning the war on terror and in bringing an end to the war in Iraq."
Democratic leaders, too, are carefully calibrating their tone on Iraq, allowing the national party and liberal groups to savage Republicans in particularly harsh terms while high-profile elected officials use gentler language to make the same criticisms of Bush and his national security team. They have turned to Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania - a sometimes-cantankerous, decorated former Marine who commands respect among the military rank and file - to unleash the sharpest barbs against Bush and his party on the war.
Democrats say Bush may be avoiding tough talk out of necessity.
"He's realized his political capital is gone and there's a backlash against this kind of talk among voters," said Amaya Smith, a Democratic spokeswoman. "He's become a toxic president."
But if Bush is reticent, his allies are not. Republican officials say they are unapologetic about their use of harsh language to characterize Democrats' stance on the war.
"It is our responsibility to clearly differentiate between the parties in the war on terror," said Danny Diaz, a party spokesman. Republicans "will continue to emphasize that Democrats don't fully appreciate the threat America faces."