Republicans can avert a disastrous midterm election this fall by returning to basic conservative themes that set them apart from Democrats, New York Gov. George Pataki said Saturday.

"There will be a lot of change between now and November," Pataki said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I understand that it will be a tough year, but we have to get back to focusing on what Republicans stand for."

Pataki was visiting Iowa, where he campaigned and raised money for legislative candidates, and tested the waters for a possible bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.

As he courted local activists, Pataki sought to counter what many see as his biggest weakness — the perception that he's a northeastern moderate in a state where the Republican Party is distinctly conservative.

Meeting with hard-core GOP activists, Pataki's theme was anything but moderate, and he said revelations of a foiled terror plot in Britain this week underscore just how quickly the political climate can change.

"National security matters are foremost right now given the events of this week, but we also have to have a strong domestic agenda and I'm confident we can go into November with one," Pataki said.

Most polls in recent months have contained sour news for Republicans, with most voters saying they are unhappy with the war in Iraq and President Bush. That's led to speculation that Democrats could grab control of Congress, a shift that would greatly complicate Bush's last two years as president.

While Republicans must offer a broader agenda, Pataki said national security will be a major issue in the election, and he said Republicans have a clear edge on that issue.

"We just saw two days ago the fact that terrorists are still out there actively plotting and trying to kill thousands of people and attack us again," Pataki said. "I think the American people know that the Republicans have a better approach to protecting us."

Pataki's latest visit to Iowa also was an effort to hone a political organization he's beginning to build in the state. Former Gov. Terry Branstad introduced him, and touted his rural New York roots.

"Even though he's the governor of New York, he's a farm kid," Branstad said.

Also at Pataki's side was former Senate Republican Leader Stewart Iverson, who has signed on as a $5,000-a-month political consultant.

In building his organization, Pataki has focused on low-key retail politics that resonates in a small and largely rural state like Iowa.

"This reminds me of most of the races I've run," he said. "I ran for the Statehouse four times and I was mayor of my home town, which is significantly smaller than Ankeny. I've done this my whole political career."

Ankeny, a town of nearly 30,000 people, is just north of Des Moines in central Iowa.

Pataki's visit came as other potential candidates in both parties stepped up their focus on Iowa's leadoff caucuses. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich joined Gov. Tom Vilsack at the Iowa State Fair, while Delaware Sen. Joe Biden spent the day stumping for legislative candidates.

Next week, Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Republican Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., all have visits scheduled to Iowa.