President Bush told Republicans on Tuesday night that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were still reverberating around the world, meaning voters must elect Sen. John McCain of Arizona as president “to protect America.”
In a brief address to the Republican National Convention introduced by his wife, Laura, the president thanked rescue workers and volunteers who stepped forward to help out after Hurricane Gustav hit along the Gulf Coast on Monday. The president had been scheduled to be the main speaker at the convention Monday night in St. Paul, Minn., but he canceled those plans to travel to the region and oversee hurricane relief efforts.
Speaking by satellite and relegated to a less-visible slot, Bush then offered McCain as the only candidate who understood “the lessons of September 11, 2001.”Bush related how he “stood in the ruins of buildings knocked down by killers and promised the survivors I would never let them down. I know the hard choices that fall solely to a president.”
Only McCain, who is in his fourth term in the Senate, has “the judgment, the experience and the policies” to “stay on the offense, stop attacks before they happen and not wait to be hit again,” Bush said, striking directly at what Republicans see as the weak spot of their Democratic opponent in the fall, first-term Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.
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Bush explicitly reminded Republicans of McCain’s continued support for his policies in the war in Iraq, praising the senator for his “character” in backing the White House’s “surge” of tens of thousands of new U.S. troops in Iraq last year.
“That is the kind of courage and vision we need in our next commander-in-chief,” Bush said.
The Obama campaign had its reaction ready immediately, saying in a statement:
“Tonight, George Bush enthusiastically passed the torch to the man who’s earned it by voting with him 90 percent of the time, and who will continue this president’s legacy for the next four years — his disastrous economic policies, his foreign policy that hasn’t made us safer and his misguided war in Iraq that’s costing us $10 billion a month. The man George Bush needs may be John McCain, but the change America needs is Barack Obama.”
Session targets independents
Republicans wanted to appeal to independent voters and Republicans disaffected by Bush’s two terms all while working to damp down controversy over McCain’s selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.
In a break with tradition, the president did not get the marquee speaking slot — during the hour the broadcast television networks were covering the action — reflecting convention organizers’ concern that Bush’s unpopularity could drag down the ticket. In that context, his emphasis on his war policies and suggestion that Obama would put American interests at grave risk appeared somewhat out of step Tuesday night.
The marquee prime-time slots instead went to former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., who is most famous for playing a folksy prosecutor on a TV crime show, and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democrat-turned-Independent who ran on the Democratic ticket in 2000.
In a folksy speech drawing on the talents he learned as a highly successful movie and television actor, Thompson, who unsuccessfully challenged McCain for the Republican presidential nomination, painted a dramatic picture of his onetime rival as an American hero whose determination to outlast his captors during 5½ years as a North Vietnamese prisoner of war would serve him well as the next president.
Thomson recounted in graphic detail the torture and mistreatment McCain underwent in Hanoi after his jet was shot down Oct. 26, 1967, over North Vietnam.
“John McCain knows about hope,” Thompson said to a hushed crowd. “That’s all he had to survive on.”
Thompson said McCain’s endurance under soul-breaking conditions was “the kind of character that civilizations from the beginning of history have sought in their leaders.”
“The same character that marked John McCain’s military career has also marked his political career,” Thompson said. “This man, John McCain, is not intimidated by what the polls say or by what is politically safe or popular.”
And Lieberman, who is now officially an independent but continues to caucus with the Democrats, may have been addressing Republican delegates in the hall, but he, too, was really speaking to millions of Democrats watching at home on television.
“What, after all, is a Democrat like me doing at a Republican convention like this?” Lieberman asked.
His answer: “I’m here to support John McCain because country matters more than party.”
“John McCain’s whole life testifies to a great truth: Being a Democrat or a Republican is important. But it is not more important than being an American,” he said.
Afterward, in an interview with NBC News, Lieberman repeated that “John McCain is the best choice for president,” but he demurred when asked if Palin was ready to take over if disaster struck. “Let’s hope for the best. John is in great shape,” he said.
Lieberman said it was initially awkward to be speaking at a Republican convention. But he said, “I didn’t expect my party to take the turns it did, especially on national security and foreign policy.”
McCain defends Palin selection
The convention is seeking to reintroduce Americans to McCain and provide a high-profile introduction for Palin, who was providing an unwelcome distraction after her announcement Monday that her unmarried 17-year-old daughter is pregnant and that a private attorney has been retained to represent the governor in an investigation into the dismissal of the state public safety commissioner.
So far, Palin has not conducted a formal news conference or taken questions from reporters. But in a legal filing made public Tuesday, Palin said she wanted the state’s personnel board to review the allegations surrounding her firing of the public safety commissioner, The Associated Press reported.
The revelations raised questions about whether Palin’s background had been fully explored before she was picked late last week.
McCain, touring a Philadelphia fire house , told NBC News: “The vetting process was completely thorough, and I’m grateful for the results.” His advisers say he had known about the governor’s daughter’s pregnancy.
For her part, Palin met with the board of directors of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
“We had a good, productive discussion on the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship, and we were pleased that Governor Palin expressed her deep, personal and lifelong commitment to the safety and well-being of Israel,” Josh Block, a spokesman for AIPAC, said after the meeting, which Lieberman also attended.
Newsweek magazine, citing unidentified campaign officials, Newsweek: Bush aides to tutor Palin on foreign policy issues, write her speeches and prepare her for her Oct. 2 debate against the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware.
The report said Steve Biegun, the former No. 3 official on the National Security Council under Condoleezza Rice, has been hired as Palin’s chief foreign policy adviser.
Protests continue outside
Outside the Xcel Energy Center, police contended with thousands of protesters, some of whom attacked a group of Connecticut delegates .
Police told NBC News said 286 people had been arrested by Tuesday afternoon, including about 130 who had been charged with felonies involving rioting. They said some demonstrators smashed cars, punctured tires and threw bottles.
Cheri Honkala, national organizer of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Committee, an activist group based in Cleveland, said Tuesday that protesters intended “multiple acts of civil disobedience.”
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