As he campaigns around the country, President Bush is basing his re-election hopes largely on his record in leading the war on terrorism.

When Mr. Bush emphasizes his role as a war president, he has history on his side. Americans tend to re-elect presidents who lead them during times of war.

And so as he takes his campaign message into the heartland, it is largely focused on his leadership on national security issues in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

"See, I don't believe you can talk sense to these people," said President Bush. "I do not believe you can negotiate with them. I know we must engage these enemies around the world so we do not have to face them here at home."

Public opinion polls indicate that the perception of the president as a strong leader in the war on terrorism remains his biggest advantage against Democrat John Kerry. It was a perception that built quickly in the days after the September 11 attacks.

"I think the great plus is that he showed strength, strength of leadership," said John Fortier, a political expert with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C. "You see the poll numbers went up very generally. But even when they have come down, people look at Bush as a very strong leader. He is not going to be outdone by Kerry, really, or any candidate in his zeal to protect us."

The president has argued all along that the invasion of Iraq was an important part of the overall war on terror and, at his campaign rallies, he defends the decision to remove Saddam Hussein

"So I had a choice to make," said President Bush. "Do I forget the lessons of September the 11th and trust a madman or take action to defend America? Given that choice, I will defend our country every time."

But recent polls indicate about half the country now questions whether the Iraq war was worth the cost given that weapons of mass destruction were never found.

Senator Kerry sought to exploit that rift in his acceptance speech to last month's Democratic convention in Boston.

"And as president, I will bring back this nation's time-honored tradition," said Senator Kerry. "The United States of America never goes to war because we want to. We only go to war because we have to."

The polls suggest Iraq could be a political liability for the president in November, especially if the unrest inside Iraq worsens along with U.S. casualties.

But expert John Fortier says president has no choice but to defend the Iraq invasion as a necessary part of bolstering the security of the United States.

"He certainly staked his presidency on it," he said. "He did not have to, but he believes this is a significant part of the war on terrorism. He said on the campaign that he will not risk something like 9/11 happening again. And even if there is a question, he is going to defend the interests of America. He views Iraq very much that way."

On domestic issues, the president often cites his tax cut plan as stimulating the economy and helping to create new jobs.

"When we saw what was happening, we acted," he said. "We said to the Congress: let people keep more of their own money. Notice I said more of their own money. I did not say government money. The money in Washington is not the government's money, it is your money. And by letting you keep more of your own money, this economy is growing."

Over the past year, an expanding economy has led to the creation of more than a million new jobs. But recent job figures from the government have been disappointing and Mr. Bush now faces the prospect of becoming the first president since Herbert Hoover in the 1930s to preside over a net loss of jobs during his term.