Democratic leaders angrily demanded a retraction from White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove yesterday after he accused liberals of responding with restraint and timidity to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but White House and Republican officials rallied to his defense and rebuffed calls for an apology.

Democrats accused Rove, President Bush's top political strategist, of impugning their patriotism, misrepresenting the support they gave Bush after terrorists hit the United States and demeaning the memories of victims. Republicans accused Democrats of overreacting to what they said were accurate characterizations of reactions among some liberals and of having defended slanderous statements against the U.S. military.

In a speech to the New York state Conservative Party on Wednesday night in Manhattan, Rove offered his view of the philosophical differences between liberals and conservatives. He cited the liberal group and filmmaker Michael Moore, but he criticized only two politicians by name: Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).

But as the controversy grew yesterday, other Republicans issued statements in support of Rove that cited such Democrats as Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the 2004 presidential nominee; Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.); and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (Ohio).

The acrimonious exchanges came just two days after Durbin bowed to Republican-led pressure and apologized for comparing the treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba to techniques used by the Nazis and the Soviets. Together, the episodes underscored the growing harshness and rising political stakes of the debate over national security at a time of declining support for Bush's handling of the situation in Iraq and pressure on him to outline a strategy for success there.

Rove's remarks were reported in yesterday's New York Times and in wire service reports, and by yesterday morning they had quickly exploded into the latest political battle between the parties.

In his speech, Rove said no issue better illustrated the philosophical difference between liberals and conservatives than national security. "Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war," he said in a prepared text released by the White House. "Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers."

Rove went on to say that conservatives wanted to "unleash the might and power" of the military against the Taliban in Afghanistan, while liberals wanted to submit petitions. He cited a petition he said was backed by that called for "moderation and restraint" in responding to the attacks.

"I don't know about you, but moderation and restraint is not what I felt as I watched the twin towers crumble to the earth, a side of the Pentagon destroyed and almost 3,000 of our fellow citizens perish in flames and rubble," he said, according to the text. "Moderation and restraint is not what I felt -- and moderation and restraint is not what was called for. It was a moment to summon our national will -- and to brandish steel., Michael Moore and Howard Dean may not have agreed with this, but the American people did."

Rove, who was criticized in 2002 for vowing that Republicans would reap political gains on national security, took special aim at Durbin. "Al Jazeera now broadcasts to the region the words of Senator Durbin, certainly putting America's men and women in uniform in greater danger," he said. "No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals."

The Democratic counterattack was led by the party's two top leaders in Congress. Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) said, "Karl Rove should immediately and fully apologize for his remarks, or he should resign." House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said Rove "has decided to move to center stage in the theater of the absurd. He knows full well, as do all Americans, that our country came together after 9/11."

Dean accused Rove of trying to divide the country with "cynical political attacks," while Kerry said Bush should fire Rove if he believes his own calls for national unity.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) called Rove's remarks "appalling" and "saddening," while Sen. Jon S. Corzine (D-N.J.) said that, after the Sept. 11 attacks, "we weren't divided. There were no liberals, progressives . . . saying that we did not have a need to respond."

Corzine referred to the House and Senate votes after the terrorist attacks authorizing Bush to use "all necessary and appropriate force" to respond. The Senate approved the measure 98 to 0, and the House endorsed it 420 to 1.

Eli Pariser, executive director of the MoveOn political action committee, accused Rove of attempting to "change the subject away from their failed policy in Iraq" in advance of Bush's speech next week. He also disputed Rove's characterization of the petition calling for moderation and restraint, saying that the petition was a personal project before he was affiliated with MoveOn and that it was not on the group's Web site at the time of the Afghanistan war.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan, asked whether the president would ask Rove for an apology, responded, "Of course not." He added: "If people want to try to engage in personal attacks instead of defending their philosophy, that's their business."

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said a litany of comments by Democratic elected officials and their liberal allies underscored Rove's point. "It is outrageous," he said, "that the same Democratic leaders who refused to repudiate or criticize Dick Durbin's slandering of our military are now attacking Karl Rove for stating the facts. . . . Karl didn't say the Democratic Party. He said liberals."

Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.