WASHINGTON — The recurring image in the latest Republican campaign ads is a lone militant walking across a barren land with the black banner of the Islamic State group.
Six weeks to Election Day, the once back-burner issue of national security is suddenly at the forefront amid rising American fears and the U.S. military's expanded campaign to destroy extremists in Iraq and Syria. The GOP, more trusted by the public in recent national polls to deal with foreign policy and terrorism, is using the threat as a political cudgel against Democrats in several Senate and House races.
"Radical Islamic terrorists are threatening to cause the collapse of our country," Scott Brown, the former Massachusetts senator trying to unseat first-term Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, says in a commercial. "President Obama and Sen. Shaheen seem confused about the nature of the threat. Not me."
A national Republican ad against two-term Rep. Dan Maffei, D-N.Y., calls him "dangerously wrong for our security" over black-and-white images of extremists. Another National Republican Congressional Committee ad describes Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., as "dangerously liberal."
National security rarely decides elections, especially congressional races, and jobs and the economy remain the overriding issue for voters this year. The GOP move is part of a broader approach of linking Democrats to an unpopular President Barack Obama, whose approval ratings on handling foreign policy and dealing with terrorism have plummeted since U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Just 41 percent approve of Obama's handling of terrorism while 50 percent disapprove, according to last week's New York Times/CBS poll , which gave the president worse marks than Republican President George W. Bush in 2006. At the same time, Republicans had a hefty double-digit advantage of 52-31 percent on the question of which party is more trusted in dealing with terrorism and a 49-37 percent edge on foreign policy.
Democrats dismiss the notion that national security will be a defining issue in November.
"First of all, Americans expect both parties to rally against our enemies abroad, not to divide ourselves here at home for partisan gain," Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview. "In fact, it's rather contemptible that while our troops are defending our security, Republicans are more concerned with their electoral security. And we can use that as an issue."
The political response to Obama's Mideast strategy is hardly clear-cut.
In the immediate aftermath of joint U.S. and Arab airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Syria on Monday, Republicans and Democrats rallied behind the president. Last week's debate and votes in Congress over arming Syrian rebels underscored that the political fault lines have changed, uniting GOP isolationists and Democratic liberals. It is a reflection of a wary and weary nation after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Shaheen backed arming and training the Syrian rebels, voting in favor of a measure giving Obama the go-ahead. A day later, Brown told a New Hampshire group he supported the Syrian program as well.
"I want the president to succeed," Brown said. "You know, I thought a lot about this and I do support arming them. But I'm frustrated with the incoherent policy that led us to this point."
Republicans have found a growing concern about the terror threat among female voters, whose support for Democrats has proved crucial in presidential and congressional elections.
The gender gap was critical to Obama's re-election in 2012 as the Democratic president won 55 percent of female voters to 44 percent for Republican Mitt Romney.
In 2004, though, women didn't back the Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry, in the same overwhelming numbers, with so-called national security moms preferring Bush. The president won re-election with 55 percent of the male vote and 48 percent of the female vote, according to exit polls. Kerry got 44 percent of the male vote and did just slightly better than Bush with female voters, 51 percent.
"You're going to see security moms voting in 2014," said Sarah Chamberlain, the head of Main Street Advocacy, a Republican group focused on electing pragmatic candidates.
Chamberlain will be encouraging women to vote this week with a stop in Charlotte, North Carolina, along with Reps. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., and Susan Brooks, R-Ind. So far, the main question from the 150 women who plan to attend has been security and protecting the family, Chamberlain said.
Sara Taylor Fagen, a Republican strategist who was a senior aide to Bush, said the issue is personal for women. Fagen recalled a focus group in 2004 in which one mother said her worst nightmare was learning about a terrorist attack and not knowing what child to pick up at school first.
"A large percentage of women in this country worry that one of these ISIS fighters shows up in this country," Fagen said.
The night before Obama's speech to the nation, the Walmart Moms Research Project held two focus groups, one in Little Rock, Arkansas, the other in Des Moines, Iowa.
Democratic pollster Margie Omero, who is part of the bipartisan project, said the women expressed concerns about security, both international and domestic.
"More than we ever heard from these moms," Omero said.