GOP, Democrats agree: It's the terrorism, stupid

If you haven't figured it out by now, the past four days here were focused on the "war on terror." In fact it might been called in Broadwayspeak: War on Terror! The Convention. Oh, the nights had individual themes, as is the accepted practice - courage, compassion, opportunity - but this convention was a one-note affair, from site selection to attack lines to praise.

That's not to say that's bad politics or bad policy. It's just a fact - it also has the benefit of being the one issue that unites all these folks in the "big tent." Proposals were floated here and there, but the Bush campaign has made clear it wants to fight this campaign on what it feels to be the firmest ground - with the image of the war president willing to do whatever it takes to win.

The president is resolute, which is important in the war. John Kerry flip flops, which is dangerous in the war. The invasion of Iraq was part of the larger war and was, therefore, a necessity. Same with the Patriot Act.

What's more, judging by the Democrats' convention (remember the Boston Strength-fest), it appears they believe the same topic rules the campaign. Of course, they're more interested in broadening their topic list. They'll still have John Edwards out there doing his "Two Americas" speech talking about jobs and the economy, which - "girlie men" aside - could prove to be a crucial wild card in this race, particularly if the next few economic numbers sink again. But in the end it seems everyone agrees that in 2004: It's the terrorism, stupid.

Bearing that in mind, what does our race look like as we leave this town of enchanted odors and surly protesters? Still blurry, but coming into focus.

In the next few days the president will probably get his bump from this affair, which Republicans predict will barely exist and Democrats predict should be somewhere in the range of 15 to 16 points. Each will claim victory when it comes in at about 3 to 5 points. And in a few weeks, we'll probably be - surprise - deadlocked again.

The reason is that as much as everyone wants to talk about the "war on terror," most Americans are unsure how to feel about it. It may be the dominant issue, but it is terribly foggy. Did President Bush take the fight to the terrorists when he invaded Iraq, or make a mistake that further angered Islamic fundamentalists? Is the lack of attacks since then the result of increased homeland security, or is it that the terrorists simply have not decided to attack again yet?

These issues are complicated and, yes, nuanced.

Add them to a public that is pretty evenly divided, and you end up with polls that rock gently back and forth but rarely fall completely one way.

The only thing that will knock this race solidly one way or the other is an external event, Bush strategist Matthew Dowd said earlier this week. And he's probably right. That, of course, makes both camps extremely nervous. Campaigns like to believe they secretly control everything and don't like it when reality intrudes.

There are events that could tip things strongly in Mr. Bush's favor, like the capture of Osama bin Laden. But there are probably more that could tip it Sen. John Kerry's way - increased violence in Iraq or Afghanistan, a big drop in job numbers or GDP figures, another rise in gas prices. It's probably too late for good economic news to help Bush.

But what if nothing happens? What if the seesaw continues for the next 60 days? Then the great debate on the "war on terror" boils down to two arguments. The no-girlie-men-need-apply vision of action America put forward by the Bush administration versus the more "sensitive" approach of wise America espoused by the Kerry campaign.

And if we get down to the last few weeks or even days of the campaign and the undecided voters are focused on terrorism, it's hard to see where the president doesn't have the slightly stronger hand. After all, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had a big night with his speech here Tuesday, didn't ride soliloquies to the California governor's mansion. Right or wrong, people like action. That's what the Bush White House has brought voters for four years and that's what it is promising for the next four.

Thus, the Bush campaign strategy from here: Hope the clock runs out before anything bad happens and makes War on Terror! a successful road production.

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