Editor's note: This story was originally posted September 3, 2004
The balloons have fallen. The funny hats put away. The delegates are heading home.
Now that both party conventions are over and their candidates officially endorsed, the campaign for the presidency enters its most hard-fought and critical phase. And it seems certain to get more pointed and more personal as election day approaches.
President Bush's job is on the line. So are John Kerry's reputation and his chance at the White House.
In his nomination acceptance speech Thursday night, Mr. Bush reviewed his legislative accomplishments, explained his rationale for going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and reminded Americans of the basis for his political philosophy.
"I believe the most solemn duty of the American president is to protect the American people," the president said. "If America shows uncertainty and weakness in this decade, the world will drift toward tragedy. This will not happen on my watch. I am running for president with a clear and positive plan to build a safer world and a more hopeful America. I am running with a compassionate conservative philosophy: that government should help people improve their lives, not try to run their lives. I believe this nation wants steady, consistent, principled leadership - and that is why, with your help, we will win this election."
There were no surprises in the speech, no dramatic announcements of new programs or initiatives. But the address was generally well-reviewed by political observers.
"Bush was confident and presidential," says John Allen Williams, professor of political science at Loyola University Chicago. "I think he moved his ball ahead quite a ways."
"The Republicans clearly have the momentum now, and they will try to maintain it with attacks on Sen. Kerry's voting record on defense issues," says Dr. Williams. "Kerry would surely rather talk about economic, environmental, and health[care] issues."
Other experts agree.
"This race is far from over," political analyst Charlie Cook writes in National Journal this week. "But there is no doubt that Kerry has suffered a loss of momentum."
If the Democratic National Convention, and especially John Kerry's appearance surrounded by his combat "band of brothers," looked back at the Vietnam War, the Republican event focused on the ongoing war on terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Speaking on Bush's behalf was retired Army General Tommy Franks, who led coalition troops in both countries. Bush, he said, "is the leader we can count on to make the tough decisions."
"Because we acted to defend our country, the murderous regimes of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban are history, more than 50 million people have been liberated, and democracy is coming to the broader Middle East," Bush said. "Free governments in the Middle East will fight terrorists instead of harboring them, and that helps us keep the peace."
The next major step between now and voting day will be the presidential debates, which are yet to be negotiated and scheduled.
"Given the underlying attitudes among voters, I think that the debates will be very important this year," says William Lunch, who chairs the political science department at Oregon State University. "If Kerry comes across well, or if Bush is perceived to stumble in the debates, then Bush will be in serious trouble because there is fairly widespread dissatisfaction with him."
But two months can be nearly a lifetime in a political race, and the Bush political dynasty is known for its hardball campaign tactics, as former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis found out when he ran against George H. W. Bush in 1988.
"As the last couple of weeks show," says Dr. Lunch, "the tactics that the senior Bush used against Dukakis may work again if Kerry does not respond persuasively."
This week's GOP convention included efforts - most notably by Laura Bush - to soften the image of the incumbent, who has become perhaps the most polarizing figure in American politics since Richard Nixon.
In his acceptance speech, the president stressed hopefulness and his "compassionate conservative philosophy." Bush mentioned his Democratic opponent only occasionally, and then only once by name.
But to many who watched, the convention is more likely to be remembered for the rocket-propelled rhetorical grenades aimed directly at John Kerry by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, dissident Democratic Sen. Zell Miller, and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Even before the last balloon had popped at the GOP convention in New York, Kerry began hitting back with a so-far unusual toughness - and in a very personal way.
"We all saw the anger and distortion of the Republican Convention," Kerry said at a midnight rally in Springfield, Ohio. "For the past week, they attacked my patriotism and my fitness to serve as commander in chief. Well, here's my answer. I will not have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and who misled the nation into Iraq."
"The vice president called me unfit for office," he went on. "I guess I'll leave it up to the voters whether five deferments makes someone more qualified than two tours of duty" in Vietnam.
"Let me tell you what I think makes someone unfit for duty," Kerry said. "Misleading our nation into war in Iraq makes you unfit to lead this nation. Doing nothing while this nation loses millions of jobs makes you unfit to lead our country. Letting 45 million Americans go without healthcare makes you unfit to lead this nation. Letting the Saudi royal family control the price of oil for Americans makes you unfit to lead this nation. Handing out billions of contracts to Halliburton without bid while you're still on their payroll makes you unfit. That's the record of George Bush and Dick Cheney."
Though the race could hardly be statistically closer, a new poll by Zogby International indicates a likely convention "bounce" for the Republican ticket. The poll of likely voters taken during the GOP gathering in New York gives Bush-Cheney a two-point lead over Kerry-Edwards (46-44).
"The President has had a very good convention following a good week where he also dominated the news with his own message: leadership, strength, decisiveness," says pollster John Zogby. "The President has widened his lead in the Red States and tightened things up considerably in the Blue States. For the first time in months he now leads among Independents and Catholics."
Still, the Bush-Cheney campaign has its work cut out for it.
Polls still show a slight majority of Americans (50-55 percent) believe the country is "on the wrong track," five-to-ten percentage points more than would vote for Bush at this point. Jimmy Carter faced a similar predicament in 1980, as did George H.W. Bush in 1992. For this reason, analysts say, Republicans will continue their effort to make this race a referendum on Kerry rather than on Bush.
"He's in better shape than his dad was 12 years ago," says Lunch. "But he's still in trouble."