WARRENTON, Mo. -- The phrases vary. Some days, Vice President Dick Cheney says Saddam Hussein had "long-established" ties to Al Qaeda. Other days, he says the former Iraqi dictator "had a relationship" with the terrorist group.
But the underlying message remains unchanged -- Cheney plants the idea that Hussein was allied with the group responsible for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Although the extent of any relationship between Al Qaeda and Hussein has been widely disputed, Cheney proceeds with his contention with nary a nod toward such questions.
In doing so, he draws a line from the war in Iraq, on which public opinion is divided, to the larger war on terrorism, for which President Bush wins greater support.
"When voters look at Iraq as a stand-alone issue . . . it is a horrible situation for the president," said Charles Cook, a nonpartisan political analyst in Washington. "But when it is woven into the fabric of a global war on terrorism, people are more accepting of it as the price we have to pay."
Cheney slips his reference to Hussein and Al Qaeda into his litany of Hussein's offenses: the regime's production and use of chemical weapons against enemies; support for the families of suicide bombers; and Iraq's defiance of various United Nations resolutions.
Each has largely been established and is subject of little debate, with the exception of the tie to Al Qaeda.
The bipartisan commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks said it had found no evidence of a "collaborative relationship" between Hussein and the terrorist organization led by Osama bin Laden. Its staff has said it had found "no credible evidence" that Iraq had cooperated with Al Qaeda in targeting the United States.
To back up Cheney's contention of a "relationship" between Al Qaeda and Hussein, the vice president's aides point to the presence in pre-invasion Iraq of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born militant thought to be behind much of the insurgency in postwar Iraq. But although Zarqawi is widely thought to have had ties to bin Laden's group -- Cheney calls him "a senior Al Qaeda associate" -- the extent of his links to Hussein, if any, has never been established.
Cheney's staff notes that former CIA director George J. Tenet testified in Congress about a relationship between Hussein and Al Qaeda. And, his aides say, Cheney has been careful to avoid stating that Hussein was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. Still, Cheney's references to a "relationship" between Al Qaeda and Hussein may obscure that distinction for many voters.
Surveys of Americans consistently have found large numbers who say Hussein was personally involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, despite repeated declarations by a variety of investigators to the contrary. As recently as June, a Gallup Poll indicated that 44 percent of those surveyed said Hussein was personally tied to the terrorist strikes; 51 percent said he was not.
A senior Republican who served in top White House positions during the Ford and Reagan administrations cited the Gallup findings in discussing Cheney's campaign comments on Al Qaeda and Hussein. Cheney, the senior Republican said, is "talking about something that is credible with the American people, despite the intelligence. And the intelligence community is so under attack that he can say whatever he wants."
"What he gets out of it is making the case even stronger for why we went into Iraq, and it fits a pattern of what the American people want to believe," said the Republican, who requested anonymity because his comments could be interpreted as being critical of the vice president, with whom he has worked in the past.
Many Democrats are infuriated by what they view as an effort by Cheney to exaggerate the link between Al Qaeda and Hussein.
"This is one of his major issues. He tries to blur the lines between Al Qaeda and 9/11, and Saddam Hussein and Iraq," said Michael B. Feldman, a senior aide four years ago to Al Gore who is not active in this year's presidential race.
"From the very beginning of the effort to sell the [Iraq] war, this has been Cheney's role. He's also . . . at odds with the facts. . . . That doesn't stop him. I don't think it's an accident. I don't think it's a slip of the tongue."