WASHINGTON -- Faced with growing public uneasiness over Iraq, Republican Party officials intend to change the terms of the political debate heading into next year's election by focusing on the "doctrine of preemption," portraying President Bush as a visionary acting to prevent future terrorist attacks on US soil despite the costs and casualties involved overseas.
The strategy will involve the dismissal of Democrats as the party of "protests, pessimism and political hate speech," Ed Gillespie, Republican National Committee chairman, wrote in a recent memo to party officials -- a move designed to shift attention toward Bush's broader foreign policy objectives rather than the accounts of bloodshed. Republicans hope to convince voters that Democrats are too indecisive and faint-hearted -- and perhaps unpatriotic -- to protect US interests, arguing that inaction during the Clinton years led to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"The president's critics are adopting a policy that will make us more vulnerable in a dangerous world," Gillespie wrote. "Specifically, they now reject the policy of pre-emptive self-defense and would return us to a policy of reacting to terrorism in its aftermath."
Inviting a fierce foreign policy debate in the months to come, Gillespie continued: "The bombings of the World Trade Center in 1993, Khobar Towers, our embassies in East Africa, and the USS Cole were treated as criminal matters instead of the terrorist acts they were. After Sept. 11, President Bush made clear that we will no longer simply respond to terrorist acts, but will confront gathering threats before they become certain tragedies."
Republican strategists maintain that this tack is consistent with Bush's style: direct, sweeping, and bold to the point of brazenness.
But by going on the offensive on Iraq -- effectively saying "bring 'em on" to his potential Democratic rivals, daring them to question his fundamental foreign policy doctrine in the face of a rising body count -- Bush is taking a measurable political risk. Starting with a major foreign policy address last week, Bush has begun embracing a subject that has proved increasingly problematic for him both in the public dialogue and the polls.
His position is designed to change the conversation from the situation on the ground in Iraq to the philosophical decision of whether to attack prospective supporters of terrorism in the first place. But some strategists and analysts in both parties say he's unlikely to succeed unless the drumbeat of fatalities slows down.
"It seems to me they [Republicans] are benefiting from having the bully pulpit and just repeating their message all the time," former Clinton national security expert Daniel Benjamin said. "But at the end of the day, bad news on the ground trumps all that repetition in Washington. And they have a real problem on their hands squaring those two things."
Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican and a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, predicted in a PBS interview that sustained, successful attacks by the Iraqi insurgency could "affect American public opinion" and influence next year's election.
Still, even McCain, who fought Bush for the Republican nomination and is often at odds with the White House, seemed to have gotten the RNC memo, or at least sounded in synch with the new Republican offensive during a policy speech at the Council on Foreign Relations on Nov. 5. Like strategists for Bush, McCain portrayed most of the Democratic candidates running for president as ambivalent and lily-livered on foreign policy, compared with the sitting president.
"With the exception of Joe Lieberman and Dick Gephardt, who are committed to victory in Iraq, it is unclear what the other Democratic presidential candidates would do differently to ensure an American victory -- or how they would handle the consequences of the early American withdrawal some advocate," McCain said. "Governor Dean has expressed ambiguity about the justness of our cause in Iraq. I hope he will learn that partisan anger is no substitute for moral clarity."
Across the board, Republicans are adopting the same approach.
"Democrats have very little to talk about, so they're left carping about Iraq, and none of them have a better answer than George Bush," former RNC chairman Rich Bond said. "Their answers are propelled by the loony left at this point."
Ron Kaufman, the Massachusetts committeeman at the RNC, was just as harsh about the Democratic field. "They don't have a plan, they have no ideas. All they can say is, `He did this wrong, he did that wrong, and I'd have an international coalition,' " he said. "Americans are smarter than that."
Such spirited remarks serve multiple political purposes: They keep the conservative base energized about the Bush administration, while reinforcing the president's natural tendency not to "debate himself" over decisions he's already made, Republican strategists said. At the same time, one senior administration official said, the argument has the advantage of being in line with the president's thinking about why he wanted to invade Iraq, which makes his speeches about it more convincing.
"The president didn't lay out a doctrine of preemption for political purposes," the senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said. But, the official added: "The reason you focus on [preemption] politically is because it is a clear distinction. There is no fuzziness. There is no place you can compromise on that: Either you're for it, or you're against it."
Another Bush adviser, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, agreed. "The Democrats have been universal in their criticism, but also universal in their inability to articulate their own strategy and plans," the adviser said. "I think that's where they've got themselves in a box . . . Unless they're willing to step forward and articulate some grand vision, I don't see how it ends up being a net gain for them" to use Iraq as a political cudgel against Bush, he said.
By and large, most Democrats have been opposed to a full-blown "doctrine of preemption," arguing that the United States has always reserved the right to take preemptive action to protect itself without codifying it as the basis for US foreign policy. And that, they argue, is an articulate belief that resonates with the public -- especially in the absence of weapons of mass destruction or the capture of former dictator Saddam Hussein of Iraq.
"If the White House believes President Bush can run for reelection on Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney's right-wing think tank doctrines, then Karl Rove has lost a step or two," Senator John F. Kerry of Masschusetts, one of the contenders, said.
"Everyone knows we need to hunt down and destroy those who are plotting mass murder against Americans. But it takes a lot more than that to defeat terrorism in the long term, and the clumsy, arrogant way the Bush administration boasts about preemption alienates allies we need to help us and makes it a lot harder to stop proliferation in trouble spots around the globe."
Howard Dean, an opponent of military action in Iraq from the start, dismissed preemption altogether. "A preemptive strategy never fits into an American strategy," the presidential candidate and former Vermont governor said last week.
"It is a policy that doesn't serve us well, and Iraq is a perfect example. The first time we used the preemption policy, it got us into an enormous amount of trouble."
Sarah Schweitzer of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Anne E. Kornblut can be reached at email@example.com.