The Bush campaign has made the war on terrorism the baseline issue in this presidential race. That was underscored by Vice President Cheney's blunderbuss shot this week charging that if Democrat John Kerry is elected, "the danger is that we'll get hit again" by terrorists.

But a close look at George Bush's record on terrorism suggests that his favorite issue may actually be one of his vulnerabilities. He unquestionably helped unify the country in the weeks immediately after Sept. 11. And, thanks partly to aggressive intelligence operations, there hasn't been a repeat of Sept. 11 so far. But that's not the same thing as framing a successful anti-terrorism policy.

Any analysis of Bush's anti-terrorism record has to be divided into pre-Sept. 11 and post-Sept. 11. And in both periods, there is considerable evidence to challenge Bush's contention that his actions have made the country safer.

The pre-attack case is outlined in a memo that's making the rounds of the Kerry campaign. Written by a Democrat with long experience on terrorism, the memo draws heavily on the final report of the Sept. 11 commission. It begins by bluntly stating one of the investigation's findings: "In the face of dire warnings in the summer of 2001, Bush failed to direct his government to work together to prevent attacks."

The Sept. 11 panel gathered some devastating evidence about the administration's actions during the spring and summer of 2001. Former CIA director George Tenet told the commission that by July 2001 the "system was blinking red" about the al Qaeda threat, but some senior civilian officials at the Pentagon questioned whether the threat reporting was accurate. Two senior officials of the CIA's counterterrorism center became so worried about the administration's lack of response to the threat warnings that they considered resigning and going public.

The commission summarized the administration's pre-attack mistakes this way: "[T]he domestic agencies never mobilized in response to the threat. They did not have direction. . . . The borders were not hardened. Transportation systems were not fortified. Electronic surveillance was not targeted against a domestic threat. State and local law enforcement were not marshaled. . . . The public was not warned."

Bush himself bluntly criticized his pre-Sept. 11 performance in an interview with The Post's Bob Woodward. "There was a significant difference in my attitude after September 11," Bush said, noting that until then, "I didn't feel that sense of urgency, and my blood was not nearly as boiling."

The president was hardly alone in failing to appreciate the danger al Qaeda posed. But what did he do after the attacks? Bush is campaigning on the argument that his actions since then have made the nation safer. But that claim is challenged by James Fallows in an article in the October issue of the Atlantic. Fallows contends that Bush lost sight of the al Qaeda threat in 2002 and that he squandered that year in preparation for an Iraq war that, whatever its benefits for the Iraqi people, has increased the terrorist danger to the United States.

Fallows bases his argument on conversations with military and intelligence professionals. He says the view among these insiders is that the administration's push to topple Saddam Hussein diverted attention from the postwar reconstruction of Afghanistan, the capture of Osama bin Laden and the destruction of al Qaeda: "Step by step through 2002 America's war on terror became little more than its preparation for war in Iraq," he writes.

The final outcome of the war in Iraq is impossible to know. I continue to believe that it was a morally just cause and that toppling Hussein was a gift to the Iraqi people. But it's clear the postwar occupation was botched and that the net effect may have been to create more terrorism rather than less. "It is hard to find a counterterrorism specialist who thinks that the Iraq War has reduced rather than increased the threat to the United States," writes Fallows.

The U.S. reversals in Iraq aren't an argument for pulling out, which in my view would only make the terrorist danger worse. But a realistic evaluation of where we stand in Iraq (rather than Bush's simple assertion that the war has made the world safer) is a necessary starting point for getting future anti-terrorism policy right.

Would Kerry conduct the battle against terrorism any better than Bush? It's impossible to know, given the vague generalities the Democrat has offered so far. But by framing his campaign around anti-terrorism, Bush has opened himself to the basic question: Just how successful have his administration's policies been? If the Democrats can mount a serious critique, and offer a clear anti-terrorism policy of their own, they could transform Bush's strongest issue into his Achilles' heel.

davidignatius@washpost.com