WASHINGTON — President Bush and Republicans want to convince voters the unpopular Iraq war is central in the anti-terror fight. Democrats argue they can win control of Congress if voters view Iraq — and the continued bloodshed there — on its own.

The latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll found Republicans haven't made their case despite a sustained effort to link the conflicts; a majority of the public views the two as distinct.

Sticking to the GOP strategy Friday, Bush characterized his decision to invade Iraq as a necessary step to protecting the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"Never have I said that Saddam Hussein gave orders to attack 9/11," Bush said at a news conference. "What I did say was, after 9/11, when you see a threat, you've got to take it seriously. And I saw a threat in Saddam Hussein, as did Congress, as did the United Nations."

In the days surrounding the fifth anniversary of the attacks, Bush, members of his Cabinet and rank-and-file lawmakers have assailed Democrats on national security. Republicans have painted war critics as defeatists who embolden terrorists, and likened them to Nazi appeasers.

Democrats have accused the GOP of politicizing the issue and compared the character attacks to 1950s McCarthyism.

Seven weeks before congressional elections, the poll of 1,501 adults conducted Monday through Wednesday showed that the GOP offensive has helped Republicans gain some ground.

Bush's public support has increased — 40 percent of likely voters approve of his job performance — and Republicans have erased an advantage Democrats had last month on the measure of which party would best protect the country. Voters now view Republicans and Democrats as equally capable.

People who live in the Northeast were among those who gravitated toward Republicans over the past month, which could prove problematic for Democrats hoping to defeat clusters of GOP congressmen in Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

Despite the marginal gains, Republicans still risk losing their grip on Congress.

By a 14-point margin, likely voters say they are more inclined to put Democrats in control of the House after a dozen years of Republican rule. That's narrower than last month but still a wide gap.

To try to close it and keep control of Congress, Republicans are vilifying their rivals as weak on national security, the same strategy that brought them success in 2002 and 2004. Democrats have aggressively tried to rebut the accusations as they push to gain the 15 House seats and six Senate seats to seize power.

In an interview in Iowa, Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., chided Republicans on Friday for playing politics with the issue and said Democrats must be diligent in denouncing such attacks and voicing the party's "tougher, better approach" to protecting the country.

However, the White House hopeful said, "I'm concerned that we not come across as whiners and that kind of thing, like a bunch of wimps who say mean old Karl Rove is on us again."

Democrats had a slight advantage last month on the question of who would best protect the country. Republicans now have drawn even, with 43 percent of likely voters siding with Democrats and 41 percent choosing Republicans, numbers within the poll's margin of error.

Still, Democrats get higher marks than Republicans for which party would best handle Iraq, a war now in its fourth year. Forty-six percent of likely voters said Democrats and 40 percent said Republicans.

Democrats are seizing on the public's dissatisfaction with the Iraq war and Bush's handling of it as they try to make the election a referendum on the president and his policies. They argue that Iraq had nothing to do with the 2001 attacks and that the war has been a costly distraction from the worldwide effort to combat al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden.

The poll found that while more than half of likely voters say the United States is making progress in the war on terrorism, more than half also say the country is losing ground in Iraq — a split sentiment that shows Americans view the conflicts separately despite GOP efforts.

"I'm really not sure if we're making progress in the war on terror, but I'm sure we're not making progress in the Iraq war," said Diane Taylor, 51, a Democrat from Crookstown, N.J.

A Republican in Philadelphia, Louis Sgro, 62, said: "He made a mistake in going to Iraq" but the president is "doing about a good a job as anybody else" in the war on terrorism.

Overall, half of all likely voters say they feel strongly about the situation in Iraq and half feel strongly about the war on terrorism.

As casualties and costs climb, Democrats contend they can benefit greatly by keeping Iraq on voters' minds.

Indeed, likely voters who care deeply about Iraq are far more likely to vote for Democrats, 57 percent, than Republicans, 38 percent.

However, Republicans have a slight advantage among likely voters who care deeply about terrorism, with 50 percent saying they will side with the GOP and 44 percent choosing Democrats.

That explains why Republicans are intent on portraying the conflicts as one and emphasizing national security as a whole, an issue that historically has been the party's strength and helped the GOP win Congress and the White House in back-to-back elections after the 2001 attacks.

The poll had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points for all adults and 4 percentage points for likely voters.

Contributing: Mike Glover, Will Lester, Kasie Hunt, Trevor Tompson, Dennis Junius.