NEW YORK — Republicans opened their national convention Monday with an appeal to the moderate and independent voters who are expected to decide the presidential election, sending out two of the party’s most beloved national figures, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, to issue ringing defenses of President Bush ’s leadership in the war on terrorism.
McCain, a war hero whose bravery became the stuff of legend during five years in a Vietnam prisoner-of-war camp, and Giuliani, whose steadfast stewardship after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks galvanized New York and the nation, vividly reminded Americans of the horrors of that pivotal day, when almost 3,000 people died in Manhattan, at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania.
Alone among the evening’s primary speakers at Madison Square Garden in New York, McCain did not criticize the Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, an old friend who was widely reported to have tried to persuade him to cross party lines and join the Democratic ticket.
“We are arguing over the means to better secure our freedom and promote the general welfare. But it should remain an argument among friends who share an unshaken belief in our great cause and in the goodness of each other,” said McCain, who has defended Kerry against allegations by other Vietnam veterans that he lied about his service in the war.
Indeed, McCain’s relations with Bush, who defeated him for the Republican nomination in a bitter primary fight four years ago, have been far rockier, but he has embraced Bush on the campaign trial this summer, and he made his loyalties clear Monday night.
McCain said only “the most deluded” could doubt Bush’s decision to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Like all wars, this one will have its ups and downs,” he said. “But we must fight. We must.”
“For his determination to undertake [the war on terrorism], and for his unflagging resolve to see it through to a just end, President Bush deserves not only our support, but our admiration,” McCain said, bringing the 4,853 delegates and alternates to their feet in cheers with an emotional salute to Bush’s “determination to make this world a better, safer, freer place.”
The strongest reaction of the evening came when McCain dismissed liberal director Michael Moore, whose documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11” energized opposition to the president, as a “disingenuous filmmaker.” The crowd began booing loudly.
Moore, who is attending the convention as a columnist for USA Today, grinned from his seat and waved to the crowd.
Attacks on Kerry
It was left to other speakers to tear down Kerry, and they did so avidly on a day when delegates approved a sharply conservative agenda endorsing many of the policies the president championed after the terrorist attacks just a few miles away.
Giuliani told the delegates and a national audience watching on cable and public television — the major networks chose not to cover the night’s events — that “President Bush sees world terrorism for the evil that it is. John Kerry has no such clear, precise and consistent vision.”
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Giuliani returned to a favorite Republican attack on Kerry, their contention that he “flip-flops” on major issues in response to public opinion.
“When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, John Kerry voted against the Persian Gulf War. Later he said he actually supported the war,” Giuliani said. “Then, in 2002, as he was calculating his run for president, he voted for the war in Iraq. And then, just none months later, he voted against an $87 billion supplemental budget to fund the war and support our troops.
“... At this rate, with 64 days left, he still has time to change his position at least three or four more times,” Giuliani said to laughter and sustained applause.
By contrast, “since September 11th, President Bush has remained rock solid,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how he is demonized. It doesn’t matter what the media does to ridicule him or misinterpret him or defeat him.
“They ridiculed Winston Churchill. They belittled Ronald Reagan. But like President Bush, they were optimists. Leaders must be optimists. Their vision was beyond the present and set on a future of real peace and true freedom.”
Echoes of 9/11
Giuliani’s emotional evocations of Sept. 11 and its impact on his city made it clear that the Republicans intend to campaign on memories of the terrorist attacks and Bush’s widely praised leadership in the immediate aftermath. Democrats have accused the party of cynically exploiting a historical tragedy that they say should remain outside the political arena.
“On September 11th, this city and our nation faced the worst attack in our history,” Giuliani said. “On that day, we had to confront reality. For me, standing below the north tower [of the World Trade Center] and looking up and seeing the flames of hell and then realizing that I was actually seeing a man — a human being — jumping from the 101st or 102nd floor drove home to me that we were facing something beyond anything we had ever faced before.”Video: Remembering 9/11
Giuliani said he feared that “we would be attacked many more times that day and in the days that followed.” He said he embraced Bernard Kerik, the former police commissioner who also addressed the convention Monday night, and said, “Thank God George Bush is our president.
“And I say it again tonight. Thank God George Bush is our president.”
Kerik, likewise, maintained that “we live in a much safer world as a result of this president’s strong leadership,” saying, “There are two candidates in this race, but only one fills those needs.”
Bush as a war leader
The convention program for the entire week was devoted to trumpeting Bush as a war president unflinching in the face of terrorism at home and around the world.
“My friends, this is no time to pick a leader who is weak on the war and wrong on taxes,” House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois said. “George W. Bush is a strong leader with the right vision for America.”
Democrats responded quickly. Breaking with the tradition that says nominees should remain inconspicuous during their opponents’ conventions, Kerry’s running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, pointed to Bush’s comments in an interview with NBC News that suggested that the war on terrorism could not be won.
“After months of listening to the Republicans base their campaign on their singular ability to win the war on terror, the president now says we can’t win the war on terrorism,” Edwards said in a statement. “This is no time to declare defeat.”
The roster of speakers Monday night highlighted moderates in a conscious effort to revive Bush’s 2000 campaign self-portrait as a “compassionate conservative.” At the same time, the party adopted a sharply conservative platform calling for constitutional bans on gay marriage and abortion and the doubling of federal funding to promote abstinence as a family planning method.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, the platform chairman, maintained that the platform was squarely in the Republican mainstream, telling delegates that it “highlights the principles that unite our party.”
The platform, too, praised Bush’s response to the terrorist attacks. “The president’s most solemn duty is to protect our country. George W. Bush has kept that charge,” it said.
Nor did the party shrink from its support for the USA Patriot Act, the security law enacted in the wake of the attacks, which has emerged as a polarizing issue for Democrats and some Republicans who say its provisions have assaulted Americans’ free speech and privacy rights.
Robert Khuzami, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan, thanked Bush for having “the courage and wisdom to seek passage of the Patriot Act, a critical tool in the effort to prevent future terrorist acts.”
“The Patriot Act has helped our homeland security team dismantle terror cells from New York to Oregon, disrupt efforts to obtain weapons and cut off sources of terrorist funding,” he said.
Bush promised no retreat in an interview Monday on NBC’s “Today” show. When asked “Can we win?” Bush said: “I don’t think you can ‘win’ [the war on terrorism]. But I think you can create conditions so that the — those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world.”
That brought a storm of Democratic criticism.
“I decided a year ago that he cannot win the war on terror,” retired Gen. Merrill McPeak, former chief of staff of the Air Force, said at a news conference organized by Democrats.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan clarified the president’s remarks, telling reporters aboard Air Force One: “He was talking about winning it in the conventional sense ... about how this is a different kind of war and we face an unconventional enemy.”
Hastert welcomed the delegates and more than 10,000 volunteers Monday to Madison Square Garden, where Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney will be sent into the fall campaign to keep the White House. Their names were placed in nomination for second terms, to be ratified in an alphabetical state-by-state roll call that will proceed over all four nights of the convention.
“George W. Bush shares the hopeful vision of Lincoln and Reagan,” said Hastert, the convention’s permanent chairman.
But as the convention got under way, the controversy that has dominated the campaign for the last few weeks — attacks by a veterans group on Kerry’s military service in Vietnam — continued to provoke sharp discussion.Video: McCain interview
Even McCain said it was fair to criticize Kerry’s leadership of Vietnam veterans who opposed the war three decades ago. As he has before, he said on CBS’s “Early Show” that the ads were “dishonest and dishonorable.” But “what John Kerry did after the war is very legitimate political discussion,” he said.
Some delegates, meanwhile, mocked Kerry, who was awarded three Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam, by wearing Band-Aids decorated with miniature purple hearts.
Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, responded angrily, noting that more than 3,700 Purple Hearts had been awarded during the war in Iraq and calling it “inexcusable for a Republican delegate to mock anyone who has ever put on a soldier’s uniform. It is inexcusable to mock service and sacrifice.”
Frist, for his part, tried to shift the debate away from the controversy. In an interview on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” he said it was clear that “John Kerry served nobly.”
The real challenge for Kerry, he said, is to “tell me about your service in the United States Senate,” where he said Kerry had opposed conservative judges and attempts to strengthen America’s defense. “What has John Kerry done the last four years in my body, the Senate?”
Mainly quiet amid heavy security; one detective injured
The convention opened with polls showing Bush and Kerry in a virtual tie among a highly polarized electorate, leaving them to fight over the small pool of undecided voters.
Bush, who arrives Wednesday after a tour of eight battleground states, will spend one night in New York before returning to the campaign trail. He spent some time Monday morning in pre-speech preparation in the theater of the White House residence, some of it practicing with a Teleprompter, McClellan said.
Kerry, sticking to the tradition of laying low, was in Nantucket, Mass., on vacation.
Around the convention center, thousands of police imposed tight security. Protesters, who numbered at least 120,000 during loud but peaceful demonstrations Sunday, generally melted away Monday, leaving only small groups to heckle convention-goers.
One of the marches briefly turned violent Monday night when a protester stomped and punched a plainclothes detective and hundreds of officers in riot gear pushed demonstrators away from Madison Square Garden, witnesses and police said. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly called it “a blatant, vicious attack.”
The detective, who was identified as William Sample, was briefly knocked unconscious
and was hospitalized with head injuries that were not life-threatening. His assailant escaped.
By MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson. NBC’s Chip Reid and Alicia Jennings contributed to this report.