IMAGE: Laura Bush
Jeff Haynes  /  AFP - Getty Images
Laura Bush looks up at the screen where her husband, the president, was shown introducing her Tuesday night.
msnbc.com
updated 9/1/2004 10:22:31 AM ET 2004-09-01T14:22:31

The Republican National Convention went up close and personal Tuesday night, hearing the stories of a president agonizing over the awesome consequences of his power and a poor immigrant who conquered the worlds of competitive bodybuilding, show business and politics to become governor of the nation’s largest state.

The women in his life gave delegates and a national audience a glimpse of George W. Bush as a husband and a father, portraying him as a man of “strength and conviction.” But they were upstaged by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger , who thrilled the convention with his Horatio Alger-like tale and enthusiastically urged Americans to re-elect Bush as the guardian of that heritage of opportunity.

IMAGE: California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
J. Scott Applewhite  /  AP
“My fellow Americans, this is an amazing moment for me,” California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told cheering delegates Tuesday night.

Curiously recalling how he heard the words of Richard Nixon in 1968 as “a breath of fresh air” — the first time the disgraced Nixon’s name had been mentioned nearly halfway through the convention — Schwarzenegger said: “My fellow Americans, this is an amazing moment for me. To think that a once-scrawny boy from Austria could grow up to become governor of California and stand in Madison Square Garden to speak on behalf of the president of the United States — that is an immigrant’s dream. It is the American dream.”

“To my fellow immigrants listening tonight, I want you to know how welcome you are in this party,” he said, speaking forcefully to the cheering crowd, as if in exclamation points. “We Republicans admire your ambition. We encourage your dreams. We believe in your future.

“One thing I learned about America is that if you work hard and play by the rules, this country is truly open to you. You can achieve anything.”

‘Don’t be economic girlie men!’
Of course, the proven crowd-pleaser could not resist poking at his own long career as a champion bodybuilder and the star of movies punctuated by explosions, car chases and relentless gunbattles.

“What a greeting!” Schwarzenegger said after a cheering ovation of more than two minutes. “This is like winning an Oscar — as if I would know!”

And Schwarzenegger joked, “To those critics who are so pessimistic about our economy, I say: Don’t be economic girlie men!” It was a dig at the mini-contretemps that greeted his recent needling of California Democrats.

Video: Big-money conventions

Schwarzenegger has been cautious until now in promoting the president’s re-election; the two have appeared together in California, but Schwarzenegger has sent mixed signals about campaigning for Bush outside the state.

For the most part Tuesday night, Schwarzenegger stuck to his feel-good story of opportunity, especially for immigrants. But he full-throatedly endorsed Bush’s re-election, and he squarely supported Bush’s most controversial policy choice, the decision to invade Iraq.

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“My fellow Americans, make no mistake about it – terrorism is more insidious than communism, because it yearns to destroy not just the individual but the entire international order,” he said. “The president didn’t go into Iraq because the polls told him it was popular.

“As a matter of fact, the polls said just the opposite. But leadership isn’t about polls. It’s about making decisions you think are right and then standing behind those decisions. That’s why America is safer with George W. Bush as president.”

Another side of the president
Delegates were rapturous over their new star, even though he opposes some of the primary planks in the party’s platform, including its opposition to legal abortion and its support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage — subjects  Schwarzenegger chose not to touch on. Those issues were left to speakers who were relegated to slots earlier in the evening, before the national television networks joined the party.

The governor’s raucous reception set a high standard for Bush’s wife, Laura , who deflected the pressure by turning delegates’ attention to the president’s private side.

The first lady took the stage after a fond introduction by her husband, who spoke by satellite from a softball game in North Middleton Township, Pa. He, in turn, was introduced by the Bushes’ 22-year-old twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, who jolted the convention with a joke-filled deflation of their parents and grandparents.

Noting that their grandmother Barbara Bush, the current president’s mother and a former first lady herself, had occasionally objected to their choices in clothes and music, Jenna Bush remarked: “Ganny, we love you dearly, but you’re just not very hip. She thinks ‘Sex in the City’ is something married people do but never talk about.”

“I know it’s hard to believe,” said her sister, “but our parents’ favorite term of endearment for each other is actually ‘Bushie.’”

Laura Bush then set out to answer Americans who had asked her why “you think we should re-elect your husband as president.”

“As you might imagine, I have a lot to say about that,” she related. Nearly all of it had to do with the president’s personal qualities. While she briefly mentioned the Bush administration’s education program, dubbed No Child Left Behind, and its push to lower taxes despite a rising federal debt, for the most part she steered clear of policy issues.

The first lady painted a portrait of a president saddened but undaunted by the burdens of war.

“I remember some very quiet nights at the dinner table,” she said. “George was weighing grim scenarios and ominous intelligence about potentially even more devastating attacks.” All along, she “knew he was wrestling with these agonizing decisions that would have such profound consequence for so many lives and for the future of our world.”

Americans should vote for husband for these reasons as much as they should his beliefs, she said:

“People ask me all the time whether George has changed. He’s a little grayer — and of course, he has learned and grown as we all have. But he’s still the same person I met at a backyard barbecue in Midland, Texas, and married three months later.”

Bush formally nominated
The delegates, meanwhile, were in the middle of a three-day process that began Monday to formally nominate Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to a second term with a roll call full of home-state bragging and lots of praise for their incumbents. Pennsylvania cast the votes that gave Bush the 1,255 delegates he needed to seal the nomination Tuesday night.

The president spent the day on the road, addressing the American Legion in Nashville, Tenn., before heading to Iowa and Pennsylvania. His Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, was spending most of the day at his beachfront home in Massachusetts before flying to Nashville to spend the night. He talks to the American Legion on Wednesday.

Video: Gay marriage to the fore

More so than they did Monday night, speakers made a point of defending some of the party’s more controversial policies Tuesday night.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, who unsuccessfully challenged Bush for the presidential nomination in 2000, took the first big shot in the “culture war” against the Democrats, stoutly defending the Republican opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, positions that were detailed in the campaign platform but were barely mentioned Monday.

“We believe in life — the new life of a man and woman joined together under God,” Dole said to cheers.

“Marriage is important not because it is a convenient invention or the latest reality show. Marriage is important because it is the cornerstone of civilization and the foundation of the family,” she added. “Marriage between a man and a woman isn’t something Republicans invented, but it is something Republicans will defend.”

Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, a medical doctor, laid out the party’s strategy to answer Kerry’s attacks on the president’s decision to ban federal funding for scientific research on newly created embryonic stem cells, an issue that has created sharp divisions among Republicans.

Many scientists believe such research could contribute to the discovery of new treatments for a host of ailments, including Alzheimer’s disease, which felled Republican icon Ronald Reagan this year. The former president’s son Ron spoke in favor of new research funding at the Democratic convention last month, and his widow, Nancy, rejected an invitation to appear at the Republican gathering this week.

Frist stopped just short of accusing Kerry of lying about the Republican policy, which recent polls suggest could be a potent issue for Democrats. He said the federal government was, in fact, funding stem cell research, taking no note of the restriction that such research was limited only to older stem cell lines that were already in existence before August 2001.

“John Kerry claims that the president has put a ‘sweeping ban’ on stem cell research,” Frist said. “I challenge Mr. Kerry tonight: What ban? Shame on you, Mr. Kerry.”

Even Laura Bush got into the act, contending that Bush was “the first president to provide federal funding for stem cell research.”

Bush on terrorism
But off the podium, just as much attention was focused on Bush supporters’ attempts to explain the president’s comments Monday that the war against terrorism could not be won.

Video: Bush backs off terror comments

Appearing on NBC’s “Today,” Bush was asked Monday whether the war on terrorism was winnable. “I don’t think you can win it. 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,” Bush said.

Bush believes the United States will win the war on terrorism, despite his remarks suggesting it could not be won, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Tuesday. In his acceptance speech Thursday, the president “will make it crystal clear ... that we will win the war on terrorism by continuing to take the fight to the enemy,” McClellan said.

Laura Bush defended her husband, saying on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that “this isn’t a war with a country where you’re going to have a surrender at some point. But the fact is, as we look around the world, we are already winning the war on terror.”

Still, Democrats pounced on the president’s remark in hope of stealing some convention-week spotlight from Republicans. On arrival Tuesday night in Nashville, Kerry said, “You heard last night ... all they are talking about is the war on terror, which the president yesterday said he doesn’t think we can win. We can, we must and we will win the war on terror.”

Outside the hall, police clamped a security lid on much of midtown Manhattan to rein in protesters. There were no reports of violence, but by midnight, marchers had gridlocked several parts of the city. Police told NBC News that they made more than 900 arrests .

By MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson. MSNBC-TV’s Becky Diamond in Nashville, Tenn., and NBC’s Javier Morgado and Frank Salamone in New York contributed to this report.

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