IMAGE: Vice President Dick Cheney
Charlie Neibergall  /  AP
“People tell me that Senator Edwards got picked for his good looks, his sex appeal and his great hair. I say to them, how do you think I got the job?” Cheney joked as he began his address.
msnbc.com
updated 9/2/2004 10:15:14 AM ET 2004-09-02T14:15:14

After two nights of burnishing the president’s credentials for re-election, Republicans deployed their guns Wednesday night in a withering assault on his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry . Vice President Dick Cheney denounced Kerry for having made “the wrong call on national security,” while Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia returned to the same podium where he assailed the president’s father 12 years ago to plead across party lines for George W. Bush ’s re-election.

Cheney ended an evening of red meat and sentiment alike for Republicans, who paused during the Republican National Convention to remember their greatest hero, Ronald Reagan, before hearing harsh prime-time condemnations of Kerry. The evening set the stage for Bush’s acceptance speech Thursday.

“On the question of America’s role in the world, the differences between Senator Kerry and President Bush are the sharpest, and the stakes for the country are the highest,” Cheney said. “History has shown that a strong and purposeful America is vital to preserving freedom and keeping us safe, yet time and again, Senator Kerry has made the wrong call on national security.”

Cheney, 63, who served in President George H.W. Bush’s administration as defense secretary, has seen his approval ratings plummet amid persistent questions about his role in promoting the war in Iraq and in handling the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted last week showed that 52 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for Democratic Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina over Cheney if they could select the vice president separately.

But Bush has stuck fast by him through the controversy, and Cheney returned the favor Wednesday night.

“As the president has made very clear, there is a difference between leading a coalition of many and submitting to the objections of a few,” he said, sounding a consistent refrain in the Republican attack Wednesday — that Kerry would cede control over the U.S. military to the United Nations.

“George W. Bush will never seek a permission slip to defend the American people,” Cheney said, declaring that while Kerry was “campaigning for the position of commander in chief ... he does not seem to understand the first obligation of a commander in chief, and that is to support American troops in combat.”

“Although he voted to authorize force against Saddam Hussein, he then decided he was opposed to the war and voted against funding for our men and women in the field,” Cheney complained. “He voted against body armor, ammunition, fuel, spare parts, armored vehicles, extra pay for hardship duty and support for military families.”

Cheney conceded that “a senator can be wrong for 20 years without consequence to the nation.” But a president, he said “always casts the deciding vote. And in this time of challenge, America needs — and America has — a president we can count on to get it right.”

Cheney took his biggest swipe at Kerry’s reputation for deliberation.

“On Iraq, Senator Kerry has disagreed with many of his fellow Democrats. But Senator Kerry’s liveliest disagreement is with himself,” said Cheney, who was interrupted briefly by delegates chanting, “Flip-flop. Flip-flop.”

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“His back-and-forth reflects a habit of indecision and sends a message of confusion. And it is all part of a pattern. ... Senator Kerry says he sees two Americas,” he said. “It makes the whole thing mutual — America sees two John Kerrys.”

A Democrat crosses party lines
Cheney, never the most electrifying of speakers, did not try to compete with the fervent pro-Bush sermon delivered before him by Miller, who dismissed Kerry in blunt words as “more wrong, more weak and more wobbly than any other national figure.”

The speech brought Miller 180 degrees around from 1992, when, as a highly respected conservative Democrat, he enthusiastically supported Bill Clinton and belittled Bush’s father as “a timid man who hears only the voices of caution and the status quo” and a “commander-in-chief [who] talks like Dirty Harry but acts like Barney Fife.”

George W. Bush, by contrast, “believes we have to fight today’s war and be ready for tomorrow’s challenges,” Miller said Wednesday night in a 15-minute keynote address that cemented his estrangement from the Democratic Party, even though he has refused to switch parties.

Video: Miller attacks Kerry

Miller, 72, was retired from politics after serving two terms as governor of Georgia when he was appointed to complete the Senate term of Republican Paul Coverdell in 2000. He promised that he would not hew to the partisan dictates of his party and was subsequently elected to the seat in his own right.

Miller kept that promise, to the extent that after the Sept. 11 attacks he emerged as one of Bush’s strongest supporters. Miller explained his endorsement of Bush for re-election and decision to speak in his behalf as the fruit of his disenchantment with the Democratic Party, which he said had abandoned its middle-of-the-road ideals for far-left advocacy.

It was a theme Miller sounded again Wednesday night in a harsh denunciation of his own party’s presidential nominee. But Miller made it clear that more than just repudiating his own party, he was embracing the president.

“Senator Kerry has made it clear that he would use military force only if approved by the United Nations,” he said. “Kerry would let Paris decide when America needs defending. I want Bush to decide.”

“Faint-hearted self-indulgence will put at risk all we care about in this world,” Miller said. “In this hour of danger, our president has had the courage to stand up. And this Democrat is proud to stand up with him.”

Reversal of outlook
Miller has said Sept. 11 changed his whole outlook on national security, and the change in his views from just a few years ago was startling Wednesday night.

Just three years ago, Miller introduced Kerry at the Georgia Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, praising him as “one of this nation’s authentic heroes” and a colleague who had “worked to strengthen our military.”

But Wednesday night, Miller denounced Kerry, whom he hailed three years ago as “one of this party’s best-known and greatest leaders.”

“No pair has been more wrong, more loudly, more often, than the two senators from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy and John Kerry,” Miller said to cheers. “Together, Kennedy and Kerry have opposed the very weapons system that won the Cold War and that is now winning the war on terror.”

Miller recited a long list of what he said were “all the weapon systems that Senator Kerry tried his best to shut down.” He apologized for sounding “like an auctioneer selling off our national security, but Americans need to know the facts.”

“This is the man who wants to be the commander-in-chief of our U.S. armed forces? U.S. forces armed with what? Spitballs?” he asked in a cold and controlled fury. “... For more than 20 years, on every one of the great issues of freedom and security, John Kerry has been more wrong, more weak and more wobbly than any other national figure.”

Democrats and e ven some Republicans questioned whether making such a hard personal attack on Kerry was wise.

“Well, Zell Miller is a very experienced politician,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who spoke earlier in the convention. “I’m sure he knew exactly what he was talking about.

“[But] I just don’t agree with the fact that the Democrats are unpatriotic or the assertion that the Democrats are unpatriotic,” he told NBC News. “I don’t think they are.”

The Democratic vice presidential nominee, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, said he thought “there was a lot of hate coming from that podium tonight.”

Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said in a statement: “Zell Miller played the role of Pat Buchanan, nearly frightening television viewers with his growling, slashing attack speech. Then Dick Cheney did his part, rounding out a night of angry old men who have no record to run on and can hope for success only by lashing out at their opponents.”

Kerry in the cross-hairs
Miller and Cheney led the attacks in a whipsaw reversal of tone after some delegates were brought to tears by a sentimental tribute to Reagan, the Republican icon who died June 5 at age 93 after a long decline due to Alzheimer’s disease.

Introducing a videotape remembering his presidency, which revived Republicans’ prospects after the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, Reagan’s son Michael, 59, a conservative radio talk show host, recalled his father as “not just a great leader, but also a great dad.”

Video: Protesters return to streets

“My mother, father and birth mother were pro-life and pro-adoption,” said Reagan, who was adopted by Ronald Reagan and his first wife, Jane Wyman. “Because they were, my father made me a Reagan. I’ve come to honor my father, not to politicize his name.”

Reagan declined to involve himself in the controversy that has seen the Democratic Party embrace his father and his half-brother, Ron. He made no mention of the debate over research on embryonic stem cells, which many scientists believe could yield treatments for Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases.

Bush banned federal funding for research on new lines of stem cells created from aborted human fetuses, in keeping with his strong opposition to abortion. At his father’s funeral in June, Ron Reagan implicitly rebuked the Bush administration for using religion for political purposes, and this month, Nancy Reagan, the former first lady, declined an invitation to appear at the Republican convention.

Michael Reagan said before his speech Wednesday that “I’m not there to politicize my father. I’m really there to honor him, and I’m not going to get involved in it. It’s not like any easy disease to sit down and do it in three or four minutes.”

Ron Reagan, a commentator for MSNBC-TV, said that “Michael idolized his father” and that he was “happy that he got to do that.”

The case for re-election
Beforehand, delegates accepted Bush’s renomination by acclamation Wednesday, capping a three-day roll call of the states orchestrated so Pennsylvania put Bush over the top. Pennsylvania was chosen for the honor because it is the battleground state that Bush has visited most often.

The sharp attacks Wednesday night on Kerry were also in stark contrast with the addresses of the first two nights of the convention, when first lady Laura Bush and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger led a series of speakers chosen to appeal to moderate and independent voters. They delivered messages of inclusion while building up Bush’s credentials as a war president.

Bush arrived in New York early Wednesday evening after campaigning in Ohio, the ultimate battleground state. At a community center for Italian-Americans, he made a visit to firefighters who delivered him their endorsement.

Kerry, meanwhile, ended a brief stint on the sidelines, defying tradition by making an appearance while his rival’s convention was in progress.

“When it comes to Iraq, it’s not that I would have done one thing differently. I would have done almost everything differently” from the president, Kerry said at the national convention of the American Legion. He added that the war on terrorism was winnable with the right policies, thereby keeping a spotlight on Bush’s statement Monday that it could not be won.

In an address to the same convention Tuesday, Bush backed away from those comments, saying, “We may never sit down at a peace table, but make no mistake about it, we are winning, and we will win.”

By MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson

Video: Remembering Reagan

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