Before Speeches, a Bush Strategy to Regain Edge

Published: September 9, 2006

WASHINGTON, Sept. 8 — When President Bush and his top aides gathered in July to sketch out a strategy for the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, it was clear to all that they had to try to reset the clock — back to a time, before Iraq, when portraying Mr. Bush as a steely commander in chief was a far simpler task, and before Hurricane Katrina, when questions about the administration’s competence did not weigh so heavily.

From those discussions emerged the speeches Mr. Bush has delivered over the last week, the leading edge of a remarkably intensive and aggressive campaign in which he has tried to regain ground he has lost for more than two years, by turning the conversation away from Iraq and back toward the broader war on terror.

It is a carefully calibrated strategy that will continue in coming days, first with an appearance Sunday morning by Vice President Dick Cheney on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” the vehicle he used to advantage at key moments after Sept. 11 and then Mr. Bush’s appearance that night at ground zero in New York and a prayer service at St. Paul’s Chapel.

On Monday, for the first time since the first anniversary, in 2002, Mr. Bush will visit all three sites of the attack that remade his presidency — New York, Shanksville, Pa. and the Pentagon. Then he will cap the day and bring to a close this phase of his effort to portray himself and his party on his terms with a nationally televised speech from the Oval Office.

It is bound to be reminiscent of his speech from the same seat exactly five years before, when, after a shaky day, he first pronounced the “Bush doctrine” that led to the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan and ultimately became the heart of the administration’s justification for invading Iraq.

(Gold9472: The toppling of the who?)

“You can never turn back the clock,” Dan Bartlett, the counselor to the president, said on Friday when asked about the strategy. “But we knew that news organizations and everyone else would be using this moment to define where we were five years later, and the president wanted to articulate his view, too.”

“He’s not trying to ignore Iraq — he wouldn’t, he doesn’t want to,” Mr. Bartlett added. “But he had to explain that even if we have a debate here about whether Iraq’s part of the war on terror, the enemy believes it is.”

Mr. Bartlett, like Mr. Bush two weeks ago, said this was a moment of remembrance and a reminder of national resolve, not a moment for politics. But nine weeks before a midterm election that many Republicans fear they may lose, it is impossible to separate remembrance and politics.

In interviews, Republican strategists who are aware of the closely held White House plans for this week say the critical question is whether Mr. Bush still holds the power to alter the course of national conversation away from the Iraq war and back to the theme that has worked for them before, countering direct threats to the United States.

But there is another, related question as well: whether Republicans can succeed again in convincing the nation that Democrats cannot be trusted with keeping it safe. The political strategy pursued by Mr. Bush’s strategist, Karl Rove, has always been to frame elections as choices and to work to make the other side an unappealing alternative.

The White House has signaled its intentions on that score and appears to be pivoting to a more openly political phase of its strategy, in which the administration and its allies will try to undermine the Democrats.

Last week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld compared critics of the war to “appeasers.” Mr. Cheney, for months, has been calling those who want to withdraw from Iraq “plain wrong.” The White House press secretary, Tony Snow, coined a new term, “Defeatocrats,” that Republicans have quickly worked into their lexicon, along with highly charged words like “surrender.”

“I think this series of speeches will be critical to not simply defining this president, but more importantly to defining the challenges of our generation,” said Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, adding, “One of the key questions that voters will answer is whether they want to elect leaders who recognize that we’re at war and want to do whatever it takes to win the war, or do they want to surrender very key tools that have been necessary to prosecute the war.”

Republicans and their allies are already stepping up their negative campaign against Democrats. In Tennessee, the Republican National Committee is running an advertisement against the Democratic candidate for Senate, Representative Harold Ford, that features pictures of fighter planes and control towers, as an ominous voice intones: “The threats are out there. The responsibility is clear. Knowing who the terrorists are and where they are is the only way to keep us safe.”

While Mr. Bush proved in recent days that he was capable of seizing the agenda and dominating the news, there were reminders of the limits of his power to drive the national discussion to his benefit. He was out fund-raising on Friday, but the candidates did not campaign publicly with him, only behind closed doors at the fund-raisers.

And even the Senate Intelligence Committee, which Republicans control, released a report on Friday that raised new questions about the administration’s use of prewar intelligence. It found that the Central Intelligence Agency had backed away last fall from the administration’s claims, which Mr. Bush repeated just weeks ago, of ties between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The White House campaign to seize control of the debate grew in part out of a national security issue involving Mr. Bush’s decision to move 14 high-profile terrorist suspects from C.I.A. custody in undisclosed locations in other countries into military custody at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, said one Republican who is often consulted by the White House and who spoke in return for anonymity.

The Republican said it was the transfer of the 14 suspects as much as Monday’s anniversary of the attacks that prompted the political planning. The initial thought, he said, was to give one speech to “talk about the context,” but soon the idea grew into a series of speeches dovetailing nicely with the political agenda, managed by Mr. Rove, the chief strategist; Mr. Bartlett; and Joshua B. Bolten, the chief of staff.

“The political folks and the communications folks, basically Karl and Dan and Josh, were delighted with the notion that you could begin to shape the fall debate around a series of substantive speeches that would not only drive the news but define the policy for people, and define the differences,” this Republican said.

The speeches, written by a team headed by William J. McGurn, emphasized the continuing threat represented by Osama bin Laden and went on to offer Mr. Bush’s own fairly upbeat report on progress made in closing the gaps in domestic security laid bare by the Sept. 11 attacks.

The White House kept the details of one speech particularly secret, even from some senior staff members: Mr. Bush’s declaration on Wednesday that he had transferred the terror suspects from C.I.A. custody to the detention center at Guantánamo in a speech in which he also challenged Congress to give him the authority to begin war-crimes trials.

“This was the most cumbersome, because all of the material was so highly classified,” Mr. Bartlett said, though Mr. Bush declassified some of the details of their interrogations in an effort to bolster his case that sometimes there was a need for what he delicately called “alternative” interrogation methods.