Bush's prime-time moment

Ahead in the polls, he doesn't need a home run - just a decent performance.

After four days of pageantry and praise, it may all come down to a few well-chosen words.

The speech George W. Bush will deliver tonight at the Republican convention is by far his most important yet - one that provides an opportunity to move mountains of public perception in less than 60 telegenic minutes.

Speaking for the first time before a national, prime-time audience, he can use this occasion not only to overcome voters' nagging doubts about his experience and his command of the issues, but also to establish himself as the young, optimistic, and inclusive face of a reinvented GNP - Grand New Party.

But it's uncertain if Mr. Bush, not known for being Churchillian in his oratory, can rise to the challenge. Indeed, some analysts say he really doesn't need to. Because he's already ahead of challenger Al Gore in the polls, he simply needs to put in a decent performance.

Others, however, say it's imperative for Bush to capitalize on those rare moments in a campaign when they present themselves.

"This is his one defining moment," says Craig Smith, a speechwriter for Presidents Bush and Ford. "This is it."

If that sounds a bit dramatic, consider Bush's father's speech in 1988, Mr. Smith says. He came into the convention trailing in the polls and fighting a preppie-wimp label.

But with his "thousand points of light" speech - in which "we used a drop-dead, Clint Eastwood message, and a masculine tone" - he came out of the conventions with a strong lead and never trailed again.

Transformative effect

Indeed, that turnaround highlights the rich potential of having so much of the nation's attention focused on one person for one speech: It can have a totally transformative effect.

Assuming the speech is even half-good, says Smith, "All past impressions will be forgotten. Everything you've heard about George W., it will all be washed away."

For many Americans, it will be the first prolonged look at a man who has achieved national prominence in near-record time. Given the GOP's other recent icons, they may be surprised at what they see.

He's young: Before Bush, all the Republican presidential nominees were born before 1925.

He's upbeat: "I'm an optimist," he often says on the campaign trail. It's a stark contrast to the decline-and-fall-of-America criticisms of the party's cultural conservatives.

He's a Washington outsider - and is the anti-Newt Gingrich. Campaigning as "a different kind of Republican," the Texas governor is implicitly running against the strident tone of Republican leaders in Congress, past and present.

But he still has to translate these elements into one single speech.

And after a week of carefully scripted diversity on the podium at the convention, he has another task: persuading voters that the newly touted ethos of inclusion and diversity in the Republican Party isn't just an election-year ploy.

Many of the speakers have been minorities and women, for instance, but 83 percent of the delegates are white and 61 percent are male, according to an Associated Press survey.

"They've used a strategy of populist podium posturing," says Eve Epstein, an imagemaker and speech coach in New York who has worked with the likes of United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.

But in order to make that message stick with voters, Bush has to give the Republicans' inclusiveness pitch real weight by showing he's truly passionate about it, says Dr. Epstein.

"Credibility," she says, "is key in oral language and persuasion."

One way Bush aims to boost credibility among voters is to stick with a simple speech. He's known to dislike highfalutin language, thinking it phony - and has told speechwriters to keep it basic.

"He's got a theory that if he has a flub or two it's not going to put off people - and it may even make a few identify with him as a 'regular guy,' " says Truman biographer Alonzo Hanby.

Truman used a similar approach - tossing aside scripted remarks and using only a few notes during the 1948 campaign. It helped him win.

Potential pitfalls

If he'll avoid fancy rhetoric, he also must avoid a mistake that's all too common for nominees, observers say.

Two weeks from now, Mr. Gore will likely criticize Bush in his own acceptance speech in Los Angeles. And if Bush hasn't already defined himself in a specific and positive way, voters are more likely to believe Gore.

Yet for all these caveats and cautions, some think the expectations game makes Bush's speech a sure hit.

He's ahead in the polls. People like him. And because of that, "All he has to do is read the speech and not fall down," says independent pollster John Zogby.

Indeed, says Smith, "The expectations game is wonderful." Like Bush, 1998 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis was perceived as a weak speaker. "But he actually gave a decent speech," Smith says, "and Walter Cronkite nearly fell off his chair."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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