If political conventions are designed to showcase a candidate's biggest asset, then George W. Bush's will revolve around one thing: 9/11.
Ever since Republicans chose New York - an overwhelmingly Democratic city in a state certain to back John Kerry - as their convention site, it has been clear that the memory of the 9/11 attacks would be central to the president's reelection effort. Throughout the week, Republicans hope to resurrect what many Americans still see as Mr. Bush's finest hours - his leadership in the wake of the attacks, when many voters bonded with their president and gave him overwhelmingly high approval ratings.
At the same time, the Bush campaign plans to remind voters of the threat the nation still faces, a threat they say is likely to grow more dangerous in the future, elevating the stakes of the upcoming election, and making the choice of president even more important.
Yet as the third anniversary of the terrorist attacks approaches, the legacy of 9/11 has become more complicated for the president, presenting political risks along with opportunity. References to such a searing emotional event could come across as exploiting a tragedy - something critics accused the Bush campaign of doing when it ran its first advertisements using 9/11 footage, months ago.
More problematic, the president's handling of the terrorist threat has lately generated pointed criticism as well as praise - both from neutral sources such as the bipartisan 9/11 commission, as well as partisan opponents such as filmmaker Michael Moore, whose movie "Fahrenheit 9/11" highlighted the seven minutes Bush continued to sit with schoolchildren he'd been visiting after learning that the second tower had been hit.
Notably, the campaign has declared that Bush will not visit the actual site of the attacks, where already one group of activists has held an anti-Bush protest. But the president is planning to visit a firehouse and attend a prayer breakfast while in the city. And the campaign is showcasing the former New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani, who has become all but synonymous with 9/11. Mr. Giuliani campaigned with Bush last week, and will speak before the convention Monday night.
Bush advisers say the convention will pay tribute to the "courage of a generation" that has been through extremely challenging times. The decision to come to New York should be taken as a sign of "respect and reverence for all those who suffered here, and all those who responded," said Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot at a Monitor breakfast.
Still, they are aware of the need to be cautious in invoking 9/11. "I don't think we'll overdo it," says Charlie Black, a Republican strategist. The attacks will be placed within the broader context of the war on terror, which remains Bush's "strongest asset," he says. "We need to remind people of what he's accomplished and ... what he plans to do in the future about [terrorism]."
Democrats argue that even the war on terror has become more of a mixed bag for Bush, politically, than it once was. They note that while voters still give the president high marks on his handling of terrorism overall, many voters also say they do not feel any safer. At the same time, they say, the Bush administration's earlier efforts to link Iraq with the overall war on terror may now be turning into a liability, since voters hold an increasingly negative view of the Iraq conflict.
Approval of Bush's response to 9/11 "is increasingly getting clouded by national security facts," says a Kerry campaign official. "People believe that George Bush has adopted a go-it-alone policy" in Iraq and in the war on terror, and as a result, "it's hard for people to conclude that we are safer."
Certainly, polls show that those individuals most likely to be affected by a terrorist attack - namely, people living in major cities on the coasts - are less likely to support the Bush administration. And a recent survey by The New York Times found that family members of the 9/11 victims are more critical of the administration's efforts to protect the nation from terrorism than the rest of the public.
In fact, many of those relatives now rate among Bush's sharpest critics - which may be one reason for the president's decision to avoid visiting ground zero, analysts suggest.
"Why have a perfectly good event [marred by] the ability of the families to attack you?" says Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster. Still, he adds: "At the end of the day, if this election is about terrorism and fighting terrorism, that edge goes to George Bush."
Moreover, for most voters, the fact that they don't feel any safer does not necessarily mean they blame the Bush administration. Instead, many analysts believe a sense of insecurity among the electorate is more likely to help Bush.
Several psychological studies have shown that, when confronted with images of 9/11, members of both political parties report having more positive feelings about Bush. One study, by the University of Missouri, even found that when individuals were simply reminded of their own mortality, they were more likely to be supportive of Bush.
Some Democrats have quietly questioned the administration's issuing of terror alerts - noting that the alerts often seem based on unspecific threats. Even if not politically motivated, they point out, the alerts have clear political consequences: The last alert, for example, came right after the Democratic convention, and may have contributed to Senator Kerry's inability to generate a sizable bounce in the polls.
"I believe, at the end of the day, that they believe that heightened anxiety helps them," says David Axelrod, a Democratic strategist. "There is this feeling that we're in a critical situation here, maybe we shouldn't change horses. I think that's what they're counting on."
But Republicans argue that the issue isn't simply a matter of continuity, but which candidate is better prepared to deal with a real and burgeoning threat. In the future, "terrorism will be exponentially more difficult to deal with," says Mr. Racicot, and voters must judge first and foremost the "capacity and character" of the candidates to deal with it.