What the GOP is determined to prove

The curtain rose Monday night on a Republican Party determined to present President George W. Bush as the right man to lead a country that is at war and gaining in prosperity.

Whether the party succeeds in its portrayal may depend on two key points:

1. Whether evidence of an improving economy extends beyond the well-to-do enjoying tax cuts, to the middle-class workforce that has experienced serious job loss.

2. More important, it depends on how American voters see that war: As a fight against stateless terrorists bent on attacking the homeland, or as a war on foreign soil that now has gone on longer than US involvement in World War I.

Reviving 9/11 resolve

Opening night of the Republican National Convention didn't address domestic issues.

But it did address the war, attempting to recall and perhaps revive the spirit of national cohesiveness and resolve seen in the months after September 11, 2001.

Speeches by former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Senator and war hero John McCain also aimed to convince voters that the invasion and occupation of Iraq - despite the lack of weapons of mass destruction or direct links to 9/11 - was necessary to US security as well as to the spread of peace and democracy in the Middle East.

Part of the scenario in New York is to have George W. Bush symbolically bask in the reflected glory and attractiveness of such nationally popular Republicans as Mr. Giuliani, Senator, Sen. MaCain, and movie star-turned-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger - all men who are to the left of Mr. Bush on some key social issues.

"I believe as strongly today as ever, the mission was necessary, achievable and noble," McCain told the delegates. The fact that McCain has found fault with some aspects of the war and was once a bitter political rival of Bush seemed designed to make the Arizona senator's remarks all that more legitimate.

Will the portrayal of Bush as a resolute commander-in-chief ring true with voters?

Bush perceived as strong leader

"Bush is perceived as being a strong leader," says John Allen Williams, professor of political science at Loyola University in Chicago. "It has as much to do with his demeanor as his decisions." For example, says Mr. Williams, Bush seems to connect better with people that Kerry - especially people in the military, even though he did not serve in Vietnam.

"He has a certain common touch that Kerry lacks," says Williams, a retired US Naval Reserve captain.

Bush is determined not to suffer the fate of his father - resounding defeat in attempting to get reelected. The younger Bush may tout his "compassionate conservatism." But it's all hardball when election time rolls around, as former opponents McCain and former Texas Gov. Ann Richards have found out in recent years.

And so it was Monday night, as Guiliani criticized Kerry for what Guiliani said was Kerry's poor record in the fight against terrorism.

"President Bush will make certain that we are combating terrorism at the source, beyond our shores, so we can reduce the risk of having to confront it in the streets of New York," he said. "John Kerry's record of inconsistent positions on combating terrorism gives us no confidence he'll pursue such a determined course."

In the weeks since the Democratic National Convention in Boston, the Kerry-Edwards campaign seems to have stuttered and stumbled. There was little post-convention bounce in the polls for the Democrats - perhaps not surprising given the hardened position among decided voters and the very slim number of undecideds. And Kerry's Vietnam military record and antiwar activism more than 30 years ago has come under sharp attack by some veterans. Even though many of those charges have since been discredited and most Americans now believe that the GOP is connected to the attacks, it's been a major distraction for Kerry.

"He's catching javelins instead of throwing them," says Williams.

But it's a dead heat

Still, the GOP convention opened with Bush and Kerry in a dead heat: Every recent nonpartisan poll shows the contenders within a few points of each other.

Elections like this one are always a referendum on the incumbent, so Bush and his opening acts in New York have their work cut out for them, especially among that razor-thin slice of voters in battleground states who've yet to make up their minds.

According to the Associated Press, the US public by a 3-to-1 margin think the war in Iraq increased rather than decreased the threat of terrorism, and six in 10 say the president does not have a clear plan for bringing the Iraq war to a successful resolution. Some polls show voters not particularly convinced, though, that Kerry has a better plan than Bush.

The latest CBS poll shows just 39 percent saying "things in this country are generally going in the right direction" with 55 percent feeling that "things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track." Bush's job approval rating, according to this survey, is only 46 percent.

"That's a very powerful indicator of trouble for an incumbent," says William Lunch, who chairs the political science department at Oregon State University.

Broadly speaking, Bush is seen as strong on terrorism, but less so on the economy and healthcare. What the election may come down to, says Mr. Lunch, is how Americans see the war in Iraq.

"As time goes on, the rally-round-the-flag phenomenon has faded," says Lunch.

It was just that phenomenon that the first night of the Republican National Convention was meant to revive.

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