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updated 9/3/2004 10:47:53 AM ET 2004-09-03T14:47:53

New York, Friday, Sept. 3, 10:45 a.m. --

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As I pack up and head back to Washington (before then heading out to some swing states) I'm trying to figure out the instructive differeneces between this summer's two conventions.

Then I realized that they were both, in sum, basically about the same things! Those being John Kerry, John Kerry and John Kerry.

In Boston, the Democrats didn't talk much about President Bush and his record -- certainly not as much given the problems we've had in Iraq and the economy. Kerry's handlers wanted to use the time to tell Kerry's personal story, which meant Vietnam, not Bush's last four years. And since Kerry doesn't in the end flatly dispute the decison to go to war in Iraq, he couldn't spend his time in Boston on Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld and Abu Ghraib, etc.

Here in New York, the memorable moments had nothing to do with defending Geoege Bush's stewardship, but rather with the pyrotechnical attacks on Kerry and the Deomocrats: Rudy's "two America's" jab; Arnold on the girlie men; chain-saw Cheney and of course the most memorable speech of all, Zell Miller's.

The president talked about his second-term domestic agenda but I know from his strategists that the main reason he did so was to shape another contrast with Kerry -- to emphasize that Kerry and his convention had seemed backward glancing -- stuck in the past was the phrase they used here.

As it's been shaped by these two conventions, the question of the fall is not about plans or proposals for the record of the last four years but: is Kerry fit for command? That can't have been the way the Deomcrats wanted September to begin.

The Democrats now need to change the direction of the debate -- to the Bush-Cheney record. The Dems lost the character war and I don't think they will win the culture war but they absolutely have to win the one on the Bush record if they hope to defeat him in November.

New York, Thursday, Sept. 2, 10:28 p.m. --

I am watching the president on his pitcher's mound podium and I am trying to see him through the eyes of the men and women I met the other month in a diner on the Lincoln Highway near Canton, Ohio, where the economy is shaky, the schools still strong and the voters eager for a message of hope.

He's halfway through his speech and he's delved more deeply into domestic policy and promises than some had expected. I don't know that he will win every undecided vote with his promises on health care and education, but his aides told me the details of the proposals are less important than the idea that he has some.

Now he's pivoted to the baseline: The war with Islamist extremists. I think he's won this argument with at least 50 percent of the electorate, especially since Sen. John Kerry essentially said that he would be fighting the same war in Irag that Bush is pursuing. "Faced with that choice, I will defend America every time," he said — after a couple of protesters were hustled out of the hall.

He made a strong case for his theory of America's God-given mission to spread freedom in the world.

The rhetorical tactic of closing with personal reflections is nothing short of brilliant.

I am told that the president revised and practiced the speech 35 times. It showed.

And then he closed where he began: Here buildings fell, here a nation rose.

"Liberty Century." A little hokey, but is it beside the point in Canton?

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New York, Thursday, Sept. 2, 10 p.m. --

The shape of the Bush re-election campaign was set the week of 9/11, when Karl Rove saw to it that the Republican National Committee sent out a fund-raising letter featuring the president in Air Force One the day the terrorists struck. At this moment, three years later in New York, I am watching the video intrroducing the president at the convention — and it is the mound of rubble repeated. Here he comes onto the rubble pitcher's mound ...

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New York, Thursday, Sept. 2, 3:56 p.m. --

It's almost 24 hours since Zell Miller blew the doors off the Garden and people are still talking about it and trying to decide whether he helped or hurt George Bush. To a reporter who began his career reporting stories in Kentucky, including the mountains, Miller's was a recognizable voice: the high, lonesome sound of the fire-and-brimstone radio evangelist. If there is a rural, white male not already voting for the president, I do believe that ol' Zell may have closed the case.  When he said "I could go own and own and own" I knew he meant "on and on and on." I bumped into Ralph Reed, the Bush strategist from Georgia. Reed was delighted. "I loved it!" he said.

But I'm not sure the mountain preacher attack is the kind of thing you really want the rest of the country to hear — at least not those famous suburban moms in places such as Philly, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. They care about security but I'm not sure they like the idea of someone essentially saying that America as we know it will die if John Kerry is elected president — though that clearly is what hardcore Republicans really believe.

Last night was bad cop night. Let's see how good a cop Bush will be.

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West Point, N.Y., Thursday, Sept. 2, 2:25 p.m. --

I'm here at the U.S. Military Academy of all places, taking the morning off from the campaign trail to speak about the strange whys and wherefors of the media to Gen. Barry McCaffrey's political science class.

It's been a memorable few hours: departing by way of an academy van from Manhattan on a gorgeous early September day -- a day not unlike Sept. 11, 2OO1, riding up the Hudson Valley to the Point, with its imposing gray granite buildings and broad Plain above the river.

The kids in the class were full of penetrating questions, perhaps the best of which was: where does journalism leave off and Michael Moore or Rush Limbaugh begin? My answer was not all that helpful: there is no clear demarcation line any more.

The fresh-faced cadets will have to lead in a new world of blurred lines in which every image is "real" but easily distortable, in which the division between local and global has disappeared, and in which "editors" and the old command structure of journailsm have been replaced by some instantaneous, satellite-fed, planetary and uncontrollabe thing called "media."

It's a murky battlefied, but it's one of the ones they have to understand.

Now I am headed back to the front: Madison Square Garden, where Karl Rove is trying to use the media megaphone to convince the world -- or at least a couple of million swing voters -- that only George Bush, and by no means John Kerry, is "steady" enough to be commander-in-chief, and decide the fate of the fresh-faced kids I've seen here.

As for me, I just had a moment I will always remember: a cheer of welcome from 4,000 cadets at lunch in flag-draped, cathedral-like Washington Hall. I wish them all Godspeed.

New York, Wednesday,  Sept. 1, 10:35 p.m. --

I keep waiting for this Republican convention to be about something other than terrorism and the war in Iraq and the idea that military might is the answer to all of our security problems, and I keep not seeing it happen. I'm here listening to the speeches of Sen. Zell Miller and Vice President Dick Cheney, and they may as well be playing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" in the background.

This is a defining moment in the defense of America, Milller and Cheney said — and they assume that the American people ultimately will recoil at the notion of Sen. John Kerry handling it.

The list: He likes the U.N., voted against Desert Storm, he voted against various weapons systems and he thinks he need to fight a more "sensitive" war on terror. This is the ground Kerry chose to fight on, and the Republicans are chewing him to pieces on it.

It's all an extension of the George Bush we saw on the rubble of Ground Zero and his whole re-election since then has been premised on that one moment. Is it enough?

We'll know soon enough.

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New York, Wednesday,  Sept. 1, 4 p.m. --

It's mid-afternoon and I'm here on the sparsely populated, pre-session floor of the Garden, listening to country singer Sara Evans warm up and gazing at the first podium to generate a religious controversy at a convention. Some folks — Jewish Democrats — think the multi-level teakwood affair is not so subliminally evocative of a Christian cross, and even Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe now has solemnly weighed in to denounce the Crucifix of 7th Avenue. As I sit here in the fifth row below the stage I can see what they are talking about — the light wood pattern on one side does look a little churchy — but it's one of those Gestalt things I would never have noticed had I not been told to look for it in advance.

On one level. the whole notion of searching for ominous, secret Christian messages at a GOP convention is silly. The party could hardly be more out front. Evans, for example, will be singing tonight and, according to her road manager, has a cut on the new gospel CD. Karl Rove isn't the least bit subtle in saying he's angling for four million more evangelical votes in November.

But the podium prattle is a reminder of something else: the struggle going on between the parties for the allegience of the small but pivotally important Jewish vote. Rove has set his sights on perhaps doubling the GOP's take in 2000, using President Bush's stance on terrorism as the main calling card of his aggressive theory of fighting terrorism.

I've seen "Jews for George" signs on the campaign trail and I bet we'll see a bunch on the floor tomorrow night, whatever the podium looks like.

Now Brooks & Dunn are rehearsing their hit "Only in America." Sounds pretty nonsectarian.

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New York, Wednesday,  Sept. 1, 1 p.m. --

I stopped moving around and plunked down in front of a TV to watch Sen. John Kerry's speech in Nashville to the American Legion. I saw a man trying to wake up from the bad dream that was his August by trying to change the conversation back to where — from the Democrats' point of view — it should have been all along: the future and the economy.

I talked to one of Kerry's top advisers yesterday, and he told me the game plan for the fall was to talk about health care and jobs from here on, not to the exclusion of the Iraq and terrorism, but pretty much so. "Stronger at home" is the shorthand, meant to encompass domestic economics, education and health care, and the notion that George Bush represents "narrow special interests," not the American middle class.

He wouldn't concede that the Boston convention, with its heavy emphasis on 'Nam, had been a mistake.

The bigger problem, in fact, is that by indirectly re-endorsing the war recently, Kerry is unable to link Iraq and the economy, even though the former is pretty clearly bad for the latter.

The CW here is that Bush has all the "mo" and that Kerry is sliding to oblivion. The middle of a convention is the worst place to reach any conclusions.

The economy — plus health care — remain Bush's weak spots, and if Kerry can get his act together he is still very much in the ballgame. Arnold Schwarzenegger called "pessimists" "economic girlie men." It's a remark the GOP could come to regret. I know some pessimistic voters in Canton, Ohio — they work at the local steel plant, which is about to close — and I don't think Arnold would call them "girlie men."
   
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New York, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 10:35 p.m. --

I thought for a few minutes here that the Republicans were finally going to lighten up and have fun at the convention. The mood has been somber, almost grave, because the Garden is only four miles from Ground Zero and because the party and the Bush campaign have wanted to focus so relentlessly on the war on terrorism and President Bush's role as commander-in-chief.

The delegates, their faces rather grim, march to the hall through throngs of New Yorkers, passing rows of cops and firefighters, each a reminder of 9/11. It's a little hard for the party to party — it has an almost sacreligious feel.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Bush daughters burst onto the stage, full of vim and humor, it was a brief burst of sunshine. I assumed it would continue that way when Laura Bush took the stage, but as I listen to her now I am reminded of ... World War II. We are in London and I am listening to the Queen talking about the fortitude and quiet endurance of the British people during the Blitz.

Laura has a smile on her face — that pleasant, gracious smile — but the message is of war.

I have known Laura Bush for a decade. She was always, in her quiet way, more focused on her husband's career than most people knew. I never thought I'd hear her making a case for war, but I never thought I'd see the Twin Towers crumble, either.

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New York, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 4 p.m. --

The buzz on what I call "The Bridge of Sighs" right now is not about the Bush campaign but the Kerry campaign, and talk that top Democrats want the senator to shake up his team — big time. That's bad, but hardly fatal, news for Kerry. The famous "Bridge of Sighs" is in Venice, but the one I'm talking about is here in NYC, connecting the Garden with the old main post office across 8th Avenue. The cavernous building is where they have put most of the media work spaces — it may as well be in New Jersey for all the contact most reporters have with the convention itself. Kerry's Senate staff and campaigns have been famous forever for their too-many-cooks quality. He is fundamentally a loner and a thoughtful decision-maker —sometimes too much so, which the Bush campaign translates as "uncertainty." Kerry likes to keep the power ultimately to himself, not trusting anyone to be the full recipient of delegated clout. So you knew this was going to happen the moment the campaign stalled, as it now clearly has. I don't have room and time to tease out all the layers, but my sense is that it could be a move by former Clinton and longtime Boston types against the alliance of Mary Beth Cahill — the campaign manager — and Kerry's current crop of consultants.

This kind of thing hasn't killed Kerry in the past. On the other hand, he hasn't faced Karl Rove before.

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New York, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 11:45 a.m. --

After the convention session last night I bumped into one of the Republican Party's savviest conservative operatives and the conversation convinced me that Rudy Giuliani did something unusual: He launched a presidential campaign with a single speech. Charlie Black broke into politics years ago by going door-to-door (and trailer-to-trailer) for Jesse Helms in North Carolina. And Black's reaction to the gay-rights backing, abortion-supporting former mayor of New Yawk was interesting: He was in awe. "I'm telling ya, that guy could come down to North Carolina and do just great," Black said. In fact, with little notice in New York and Washington, Rudy already has been doing it, picking up chits by appearing for fund-raisers and political events throughout the South — and elsewhere. America's Mayor is a huge draw. He's also become a terrific speaker. Dominating a giant hall the way he did last night — while still connecting with the TV audience — and doing it all with intimacy and humor ... pretty impressive. And the hall was NOT packed with New Yorkers. "All the big shots from around the country wanted to hear him," Black said. "That was a tough ticket."

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New York, Monday, Aug. 30, 11:52 p.m. --

I was on the "Hardball" set thinking about what I heard from Republican strategists earlier in the day. Here are the key points as seen from the world of Bush-Cheney:

  • Kerry made a mistake basing his convention almost entirely on his character — his Vietnam history — but not for the reason you have been hearing during the Swift Boat controversy. It's because he largely left two items unaddressed: his agenda as president and his Senate record.
  • President Bush will take advantage of that by being quite specific and sweeping in his policy proposals for a second term, not because he expects swing voters to read the fine print but because propounding a big second-term agenda feels leaderly in comparison to Kerry.
  • Kerry spent almost no time talking about his 20-year Senate record and my sense is that Republicans view this — and not Kerry's anti-war activities years ago — as his weakest spot. They are going to go after every Kerry vote and contradiction.
  • The GOP types will mute their differences. The Garden is full of pros. The big ideological war will come after November, win or lose.

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New York, Monday, Aug. 30, 2 p.m. --

I'm where I want to be — on the floor of the convention — having passed through a dozen layers of security, not so much physical barriers as people checking the myriad IDs hanging around my neck. As I got close to the Garden, the number of cops and firefighters on the street kept growing, and my first thought/emotion was to want to thank each and every one of them just for being who they are. (One of my best New York friends was a little less starry-eyed. "They're getting huge overtime pay," he groused.)

Here in the hall there is no question how they see the election: as a referedum, which they of course think they will win, on George Bush's leadership in the war on terrorism and in the effort to make the country more secure. I just asked the same question of everyone I bumped into —Gov. George Allen of Virginia, Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire and Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky — and it was this: What's the number one issue? They all used the same exact word: "security."

The central image of the week will be the president on Thursday night on the pitcher's mound they will build for him. He won't have a bullhorn but he may as well. That moment and the theory behind it — that the best way to protect America is to kick butt and ask questions later — is what the Bush re-election strategy is all about.

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New York, Sunday, Aug. 29, 7 p.m. --

Ginny Jennings had set her alarm to get up to do homework and when she awoke on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, she looked out of the kitchen window of her apartment in Brooklyn and saw, across the East River in Manhattan, the Twin Towers spewing smoke and flames. She and her friends ran to the roof and frantically tried to reach friends downtown, watching in  awe and horror as the buildings collapsed.

Today, now 22 and a student at the New School, Jennings was one of the hundreds of thousands of marchers in the Peace and Justice demonstration. I talked to her and her buddies as they entered Central Park after a long day of walking. She wore a blue bandana in her hair and pack on her back and had the clear features and earnest demeanor of her native Ohio — no radical, just a thoughtful '60s kid magically transported into a scary 21st century.

She wasn't so much angry as quietly determined to express her belief that George Bush is taking the wrong approach in response to the nightmare she witnessed. "I saw him on TV that Friday here and his reaction was, we're going to hit back, kill more people. My first thought was: Why? What reasons are there that there are forces in the world that would do this to us? I also remember them saying that first week that Iraq had nothing to do with this."

I was struck as I walked around Midtown that the mood of the marchers was upbeat — no rampage, no smash the state stuff, no Weathermen or Panthers or whatever. Most of these people don't hate the idea of government and they don't hate America. They loathe Bush but somehow the attack by bin Laden, the horrible ferocity of the result here, put an unconscious clamp on the idea of widespread violent protest — that and the huge numbers of cops. So today was sunny and peaceful, but the rest of the week remains.

Another thing: These aren't ardent Kerry fans. He's almost incidental as a person or character. He would just be the proximate cause of the removal of Bush. "Kerry is a politician," Jennings said a little sadly. "I'm not that excited about him to be honest. I care more about changing the agenda, and any Democrat would be better. But I don't want to just vote on the basis of the lesser of two evils. So a friend of mine is sending me a new DVD about Kerry. I'm hoping it gets me a little more excited about him."

She didn't sound that hopeful — but assuming she votes, excitement may not matter. Some anarchists in the crowd were urging people not to vote. Jennings did not approve. Nor did her friend, Dominik Sigg,  24-year-old architecture student from Switzerland. You vote because you have hope, he said. "The mood is positive," he said. The world wants America to do the right thing, he said — which meant, at least to these people on this sunny day in Manhattan, the repudiation of the president.

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New York, Sunday, Aug. 28, 1 p.m. --

It's a beautiful day for a protest march, and soon I will see it as I head into the maelstrom on my way to Madison Square Garden. But last night I was in a place about as far from the politics of protest as I could get: a party in honor of a 78-year-old Mississippi gentleman by the name of Clarke Reed.

To exaggerate only slightly, Reed is the founder — and certainly one of the Founding Fathers — of the Southern-based Republican Party that will be on display in all its gaudy glory here this week. Clarke was a young Greenville businessman who, in the early ’50s, was inspired by two books — Whittaker Chambers' "Witness" and Russell Kirk's "The Conservative Mind — to turn the GOP into something it hadn't been before: a conservative, anti-Washington party.

While white Southern Democrats were resisting integration on racial grounds, Clarke and his buddies were looking at what they saw as a deeper issue: the power of Big Government to control all aspects of modern life. They'd take the whites fleeing the Dems, but they didn't want race to be the core appeal.

Clarke was an early supportor of Bill Buckley, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. With Buckley, he helped rid the mainstream conservative movement of two threats — the unbounded libertarianism of Ayn Rand and the paranoid anti-semitism of the Birch Society.

All of which was too much history to talk about — and who wanted to bring up the fact that the current administration is about as Big Government as they come — what with war, deficits, federal test standardsan you name it.

Instead I surveyed the scene in Clarke's daughter's stylish Upper East Side apartment. Julia Reed has become one of the great hostesses and writers in New York, a whisky-voiced, honey-haired personage who writes politics for Vogue and who has created a whole new genre in the New York Times Magazine: recipies as memoir.

The high-ceilinged drawing room was full of familiar faces of the Southern GOP, especially its Mississippi branch. It was hot and the air was close. ("We brought the Delta weather with us," one matron said.) The drinks were flowing, the talk was convivial and subtlely knowing in the cousinly way of the South.

I stood in the middle of it all with Clarke, a handsome fellow with a noble profile and a shock of white hair. Mumbling in the low Delta way, he told me that he had talked to Buckley recently, who has just let go of the reins of the National Review. "He did it the right way," said Clarke. "Bill controlled the thing totally right up until the moment he walked away. Keep control, then you go. That's how to do it."

A conservative approach, come to think of it.
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New York, Saturday, Aug. 28, noon --

I took a cab down to the "Hardball" set last night just to check out where I will be stationed next week. We have taken over Herald Square, with a gigantic canopy set erected beneath the battle monument there, with traffic whizzing by in both directions on Broadway (where it splits off to Sixth Avenue), the subway trains rumbling beneath the street, Macy's in view and Madison Square Garden — where the Republicans will convene — just a couple of blocks over on 34th. It's a fabulous spot, as New Yawk as they come.

The thing about New York: It can absorb anything without slowing its unending and immutable flow — the traffic, the people, the commerce, the dreams. Even George Bush's GOP, as powerful as it is in the world, seems somehow almost incidental to the life of the city.

John Kerry's task was to make America sit up and take notice. Bush's challenge is to impress New York. As someone once sang, if he can make it here, he can make it anywhere.

Boston, where the Democrats gathered, is a one-note small town by comparison. Setting up outside Faneuil Hall was easy compared with the logistics  of Herald Square, Rick Jefferson, the technical production manager for MSNBC, told me as he showed me around. He had to get permits and permissions from all levels of government and labor — not to mention the custodians of Herald Square, who have done a wonderful job of cleaning the place up and installing beautiful plantings and who zealously guard the health of every living thing in the flower beds. Jefferson, a St.John's grad who has been with MSNBC from Day One eight years ago, is a master of it all, and even managed to convince the powers that be in the city to allow us to set up work trailers in a curb lane.

Jefferson is just one of many people who make cable TV happen. New York City is all about such collaborative enterprises, and the sheer joy (and stress!) of them. When I taped a Sunday show Friday at 30 Rock, I couldn't help but notice the theatrical skill with which the stage hands set everything in motion. We weren't on Broadway, but we were nearby.

What does all of this have to do with the Republican convention? Everything. Bush wants to impress swing voters with his bona fides as a compassionate conservative as well as a tough guy. The best way to do that is to acknowledge not only that New York was victimized by Osama bin Laden's terrorists, but that it throbs with unvanquished life in places such as Herald Square.

Veteran Newsweek journalist and NBC analyst Howard Fineman is covering the Republican Convention in New York for MSNBC.com with his Blackberry.

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