WASHINGTON - Seeking to blunt any political gains President Bush derives from the war on terror, Howard Dean and other Democratic presidential hopefuls are making the case that the administration's close ties with Saudi Arabia have led it to overlook a major source of anti-American extremism.
Seizing on a generally low opinion of Saudi Arabia among Americans, the Democrats have portrayed the administration as so wedded to Middle East oil that it is blind to extremism and terror financed by oil profits.
Their criticism could further strain the U.S.-Saudi relationship, which once thrived behind a curtain of official secrecy but since Sept. 11, 2001, has been widely battered.
Republicans dismiss the criticism as a sign that Democrats have no alternative but to attack Bush's approach to terrorism.
Past presidential races have also set off debates about how to handle U.S. adversaries, from North Vietnam and the Soviet Union to Iraq. But the current Democratic primary campaign is unusual in that so many candidates have singled out a longstanding ally for criticism.
"We might have a president who would be willing to stand up to the Saudis if we weren't so dependent on foreign oil," Dean, who leads his Democratic rivals in polls in several key states, said last month.
Another candidate, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, has said, "It's time we stopped behaving like the United States of Saudi Arabia and started working toward total economic freedom from Saudi Arabia, from the oil it exports and from the radical fundamentalism it's visited on the world."
The attacks have aroused concern by Arab-Americans that they could inflame anti-Arab fervor in the United States.
Though Saudi Arabia is not the biggest source of American oil - it is close behind Canada - the kingdom is crucial to maintaining stability in global energy markets through its huge reserves and pumping capacity.
Protecting this strategic resource has been central to American Middle East policy for more than two decades. Saudi Arabia enhanced its influence in Washington by serving as a Cold War partner, sharing the cost of the mujahadeen rebellion that drove the Soviets from Afghanistan and helping finance the U.S. struggle against Central American leftists in the 1980s.
The long-serving Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a direct conduit to his uncle, King Fahd, developed an almost familial bond with the first President Bush. That bond deepened when the two countries joined in forcing Iraqi troops out of Kuwait in 1991 and continued to flourish with Bandar's support for Bush's Arab-Israeli initiative.
But the discovery that 15 of 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudi nationals beamed a harsh spotlight on the U.S.-Saudi ties and exposed a seething anti-Western side to the kingdom's conservative religious culture and its export of Islam through schools and mosques abroad.
Both the Bush administration and the Saudis depict the two nations as partners in battling a common al-Qaida enemy, which aims to topple the al-Saud royal family and drive the United States from the Middle East.
"Cooperation has been constantly expanding," a senior administration official said. "Americans and Saudis have lost their lives as victims of terror and on the front lines pursuing terrorists who plan atrocious attacks."
Many analysts claim, however, that only after a May 12 car bombing in Riyadh that killed 35 people did the Saudis begin seriously cooperating.
Though Bush retains public support for his handling of the overall war on terror, Democrats say he is vulnerable for failing to heighten pressure on the Saudis to fight extremism and open up their autocratic political system.
`A deal with the devil'
Dean said last month that the Saudis "made a deal with the devil" in granting broad influence to Islamic fanatics and that "oil money goes to the Saudis, who then spend it on terrorist groups, and on teaching small children to hate Americans, Christians and Jews."
On The Diane Rehm Show last week, Dean noted what he called an "interesting theory" that Bush had been warned about the Sept. 11 attacks ahead of time by the Saudis. Later, Dean backed away, telling Fox News: "I can't imagine the president of the United States doing that. But we don't know, and it'd be a nice thing to know."
Ed Gillespie, the Republican national chairman, called the comments "reckless and irresponsible."
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, another Democratic hopeful, said in a recent commentary in The Forward, a Jewish weekly in New York: "It's time to put the American-Saudi relationship on a frank and balanced basis. Not surprisingly, the Saudi-friendly Bush administration has failed to get this point."