President Bush hopes to reach beyond his conservative base and appeal to undecided voters with a nominating convention designed to make Americans feel better about the direction of their country and the politics of their president.
As they put final touches on the four-day convention script, Bush advisers said that the gathering in New York also will feature sharp criticism of Democratic rival John Kerry and the unveiling of the president’s second-term agenda.
The goal: to energize GOP voters while converting some in the middle. It could be a tough task for an incumbent facing a polarized electorate after leading the nation through the worst attacks on U.S. soil, followed by two foreign wars — one of which is increasingly unpopular.
“He believes it’s important for a candidate to talk about what he’s done and, most important, where he wants to lead,” said adviser Karen Hughes, aboard Bush’s campaign bus in Ohio. “The speech is very forward-looking. It talks about what another four years of a Bush presidency would look like.”
The Democrats, wishing Bush no good luck, contend he has a long way to go.
Kerry, for his part, said most voters won’t look kindly on another term for the Republican. “For the last four years, we’ve had a dark cloud over Washington,” Kerry told supporters on an overcast day in Washington state. “We’re going to get rid of it on Nov. 2.”
With his decorated combat record in question, Kerry said, “I’m in a fighting mood,” and a campaign ally chided Bush for serving stateside in the Texas Air National Guard while others fought in Vietnam.
In an interview, Bush told NBC’s “Today” that Kerry “going to Vietnam was more heroic than my flying fighter jets. He was in harm’s way and I wasn’t. On the other hand, I served my country. Had my unit been called up, I would have gone.”
Starting Friday in Miami, the president carries his message about the war in Iraq and the other big issue in the campaign, the economy, to seven states before the convention. Ohio, with its spotty economic recovery, is such an important part of his re-election strategy that he is visiting it twice before his arrival in New York City.
Most of the states Bush is visiting look like a recipe for deadlock: Bush and Kerry are running close in Florida and West Virginia, and recent polls in Ohio, New Hampshire, Michigan and Iowa show the two candidates tied.
On Saturday, Bush made the third bus tour of his campaign in Ohio, visiting Troy, Lima and the Toledo-Maumee area. On Wednesday, Bush will rally supporters in Columbus, Ohio, before heading east for New York.
The president goes to a rally Sunday in Wheeling, W.Va.; on Monday is in Nashua, N.H., and then flies to Michigan for an event in Detroit; and Tuesday addresses the American Legion in Nashville, Tenn., before heading for Alleman, Iowa.
Meanwhile, on Monday, the opening night of the convention, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani will reflect on Sept. 11, 2001, by praising firemen, policemen and average New Yorkers who distinguished themselves after the terrorist strikes. Giuliani, a Republican, is helping put together a tribute to the families of the victims.
Aides said any mention of Sept. 11 would serve to remind voters of Bush’s performance, which was highly praised at the time and led to the highest approval ratings of his presidency.
But New York, which is heavily Democratic, is fertile ground for protests against Bush's foreign and domestic policies. Thousands of abortion-rights activists marched across the Brooklyn Bridge, 10 abreast in a protest a half-mile long. The night before, 264 people were arrested for disorderly conduct in a bicycle protest past Madison Square Garden. New York police said 25 people were arrested Saturday for various convention-related incidents, bringing the three-day total to 311.
Praise from McCain
Sen. John McCain, a Republican and former prisoner of war in Vietnam, will praise veterans as well as U.S. troops fighting terrorism. He also will defend the president’s position on Iraq.
“So, on Monday, we will seek to recapture and honor the courage of the nation,” said Bush campaign spokeswoman Nicholle Devenish, suggesting that some voters have lost touch with that sense of pride.
“People have a lot of things going on in their lives. We hope that a person watching the Olympics or getting ready to go back to school might catch a Rudy interview or the president’s speech and will be reminded of the courage of this nation,” she said.
That is important to Bush if he wants undecided voters to break his way. AP-Ipsos polling shows that undecided voters are more likely than others to believe the nation is headed in the wrong direction and disapprove of Bush’s performance — overall and on almost every issue, including fighting terrorism and the war in Iraq.
Democrats have accused Bush of appealing solely to Republicans with a conservative agenda. Undecided voters will break for Kerry or stay home on Election Day, according to Democrats, thus Bush’s only hope is suppressing turnout with a negative campaign.
But aides to the president say they haven’t given up on the political middle.
“Rank and file Republicans have to turn out,” said Republican Party chairman Ed Gillespie, “and we have to appeal to undecideds.”
Republicans hope to do so on the second day of the convention, when first lady Laura Bush gives voters a peek at the president’s personal side. “The compassionate side,” Mrs. Bush said in a recent interview with the AP.
Other speakers on Tuesday also will put a compassionate spin on Bush’s first-term agenda. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican with Hollywood credentials, will be cast as an American success story, an immigrant who succeeded in the worlds of sports, film and politics.
Plenty of criticism of Kerry
Criticism of Kerry will come into sharp focus Wednesday, when Miller is expected to accuse his party of abandoning Democrats like him. Vice President Dick Cheney will defend Bush’s record and almost certainly draw contrasts with Kerry.
“We will talk about his lack of credibility on two big issues — how to fight the war on terrorism and creating jobs,” Devenish said.
Bush’s speech Thursday night will include specific plans for a second term, which he will flesh out during a post-convention campaign swing, aides said. They provided no details, but acknowledged that a massive federal deficit limits his options.
Following his convention speech Thursday night in New York, Bush is bolting for the campaign trail. Bush will travel late Thursday to Wilkes-Barre, Pa. On Friday, Bush will be in Scranton, Pa., Milwaukee and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and will spend the night in Cleveland.
On Saturday, Sept. 4, Bush will make another bus tour in Ohio, stopping in Cleveland and Lake County, and then go to Erie, Pa., for a rally before returning to the White House. On Sunday, Sept. 5, Bush will attend a rally in Parkersburg, W.Va.