President George W. Bush, trying to heal divisions within his party, urged Republicans on Friday to unite behind a strong national security policy and warned that al Qaeda militants think the United States is “flaccid” and soft.

With Republicans nervous in an election year that Bush’s sinking popularity will hurt their chances of keeping a majority in Congress, the president hit the road to raise money for two incumbents targeted by Democrats, Rep. Mike Sodrel of Indiana and Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Bush, who was expected to rake in $500,000 for Sodrel, invoked the September 11 attacks at the fund-raiser as he emphasized security as a top election issue for Republicans.

“It’s important to have people in the United States Congress who understand this is a nation at war. I wish I could tell you otherwise. I wish I could say that an enemy which attacked us on September 11, 2001, has quit,” Bush said.

He warned the United States still faced a threat from an “enemy which thinks we’re soft.”

“They have expressed their tactics for the world to see. They believe that those of us living in democracies are weak, flaccid,” Bush said.

Pessimism about Iraq, the much-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina and high energy costs have helped drag Bush’s approval to 36 percent, a record low for his presidency.

Bush’s woes have led many Republicans, after years marching mostly in lock-step with him, to rebel on issues like federal spending, immigration and a now-withdrawn bid by a Dubai company to manage six U.S. ports.

Mindful that sectarian strife in Iraq and worsening bloodshed there have played a big role in his political problems, Bush this week held five consecutive days of public events on the subject, including a news conference.


“I know it’s troubled times,” Bush said in Indianapolis. “And it’s turbulence on your TV screens that affects the conscience of Americans. I know that, and so does the enemy.”

Santorum, the Senate’s No. 3 Republican who worked hard to help Bush promote a Social Security plan that Congress ultimately rejected, was among the more vocal Republicans who broke with him over the ports deal.

That has not stopped his likely Democratic opponent, Bob Casey, from making Santorum’s links to Bush a key theme.

Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, also hammered Santorum for what he called a “rubber-stamping” of Bush’s agenda. “Santorum votes the way Bush wants 98 percent of the time — no questions asked,” Singer said.

Casey holds a double-digit lead over Santorum in a race that Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman considers the party’s most important priority this year.

The Santorum fund-raiser, at a colonial-style mansion in the Pittsburgh suburb of Sewickley Heights, drew about 400 people. It was expected to bring in $700,000, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Democrats and local media had made much of the fact that the fund-raiser for Santorum was to be held out of the glare of television cameras and reporters. Some saw it as another sign he was distancing himself from Bush.

Santorum did greet Bush at the airport on his arrival and posed for pictures with him there.

Santorum told Fox News he thought Democrats were intent on unseating him as “payback” for the 2004 defeat of former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

“This would be a plum for them, if they are able to pick me off,” Santorum said.

(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick)

© 2006 Reuters