Accepting his party's presidential nomination for the second time, President George W. Bush last night offered himself to the voters as an amalgam of the "compassionate conservative" of 2000 and a steel-souled chief executive tempered by three years of crisis and conflict.
Bush closed the Republican convention and kicked off a two-month sprint to Election Day with a full-throated defense of his first term and a stay-the-course message for what he hopes will be a second.
"This moment in the life of our country will be remembered," Bush told the cheering delegates at Madison Square Garden. "Generations will know if we kept our faith and kept our word. Generations will know if we seized this moment, and used it to build a future of safety and peace. The freedom of many, and the future security of our nation, now depend on us - and tonight, my fellow Americans, I ask you to stand with me."
Yet after weeks of signaling that he would use his acceptance speech to announce an agenda for the rest of his presidency, Bush offered only vague thematic outlines or modest programs on most issues.
He revived his 4-year-old proposal for partly privatizing Social Security by allowing younger wage earners to divert part of their payroll taxes into individual investment accounts, but offered no details on how such a costly and controversial idea might be implemented.
He pledged to lead a bipartisan effort to transform the federal tax code into "a simpler, fairer, pro-growth system," but again offered no particulars on what such a system might look like - only a plan to appoint an advisory panel to study the issue.
According to a fact sheet distributed by the White House, among the questions the panel will be asked to consider is whether to "modify the current system or replace the system with new one." It did not indicate whether Bush is prepared to endorse the proposal of some conservatives to completely scrap the federal income tax system in favor of a national sales tax or value- added tax.
Many of the specific programs Bush mentioned have been on his legislative wish-list for some time, such as making it easier for small businesses to band together to buy discounted health insurance, allowing individuals to establish tax-free "health savings accounts" and capping damages in liability lawsuits.
And the new initiatives he offered - increased funding for job training and community colleges, regulatory and tax relief for those who invest in poorer communities, expansions of community health centers in rural areas, more "early intervention" programs in high school - were relatively modest in scope.
Nonetheless, Bush asserted that a common philosophical theme ran through all these ideas. The world, the global economy and American society are changing rapidly, he said, and the federal government "must take your side" to help Americans navigate those changes without killing individual initiative.
"Many of our most fundamental systems - the tax code, health coverage, pension plans, worker training - were created for the world of yesterday, not tomorrow," Bush said. "We will transform these systems so that all citizens are equipped, prepared, and thus truly free, to make your own choices and pursue your own dreams."
Turning to the national security themes that dominated most of the convention, Bush offered no concessions to critics of the war in Iraq or his handling of the war on terrorism. He called his decision to use military action against Saddam Hussein an integral part of the broader conflict that was forced upon the United States by the horrific terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"We are staying on the offensive - striking terrorists abroad - so we do not have to face them here at home," Bush said. "And we are working to advance liberty in the broader Middle East, because freedom will bring a future of hope, and the peace we all want. And we will prevail."
And, standing a short distance from where the World Trade Center once stood, he paid tribute to the New Yorkers who lived through the attacks and helped the city recover from them.
"The world saw that spirit three miles from here, when the people of this city faced peril together, and lifted the flag over the ruins, and defied the enemy with their courage," he said. "For as long as our country stands, people will look to the resurrection of New York City and they will say: 'Here buildings fell; here a nation rose.'"
Reflections with humor
Bush dismissed his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, as a typical Massachusetts liberal who has helped thwart the president's agenda in the Senate and would raise taxes to finance his ambitious spending schemes.
"His policies of tax and spend, of expanding government rather than expanding opportunity, are the politics of the past," Bush said of Kerry. "We are on the path to the future, and we're not turning back."
And, speaking from a circular stage in the middle of the hall rather than a traditional platform, Bush sought to soften the sharp-edged tone of the convention's first three nights with some personal reflections tinged with humor.
"In the last four years, you and I have come to know each other. Even when we don't agree, at least you know what I believe and where I stand," he said.
"You may have noticed I have a few flaws, too. People sometimes have to correct my English - I knew I had a problem when Arnold Schwarzenegger started doing it. Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger, which in Texas is called 'walking.'"
Bush acknowledged that "now and then I come across as a little too blunt." For that, he said, "we can all thank the white-haired lady sitting right up there," referring to his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush.
The convention organizers also tried to present the more human side of Bush through video presentations, including interviews with family members and a film recalling his visits to New York shortly after 9/11. The film ended with footage of Bush throwing out the first pitch at a World Series game in Yankee Stadium, and touched off a delirious welcome for the president from delegates who chanted "USA!"
Bush was twice interrupted briefly by protesters, who were drowned out by chants of "Four more years!" from the delegates. An usher was injured in a scuffle with a protester who was dragged away from the stage just in front of the president. The usher was taken away on a stretcher with a bandage around his leg.
The president's speech was the climactic act of the four-day convention. Both he and Kerry will immediately take to the campaign trail - Kerry in fact did so in Ohio less than an hour after Bush finished speaking - in a general election campaign that will culminate on Nov. 2.
In remarks delivered at a midnight rally in Springfield, Ohio, Kerry struck back quickly at Bush and the Republicans.
"We all saw the anger and distortion of the Republican convention," Kerry said, according to an advance text of his remarks. "For the past week, they attacked my patriotism and my fitness to serve as commander-in-chief. Well, here's my answer. I'm not going to have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and by those who have misled the nation into Iraq."
Polls have shown the race to be exceptionally close, both nationally and in the 15 to 20 most closely contested states that probably will decide the outcome.
Bush was introduced by Gov. George Pataki, who is said to harbor presidential ambitions of his own for 2008 and therefore could have been auditioning for a future role on the national political stage.
Calling the evening "a great New York night," Pataki singled out several states that had come to the city's aid in the traumatic days following the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Then he turned to his own state, saying it had "rolled up its sleeves, looked terrorism straight in the face, and spat in its eye. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you New York." The delegates responded by chanting the state's name.
Borrowing a line from former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who told the convention on Monday that he had said on Sept. 11, "Thank God George Bush is our president," Pataki said:
"I thank God that on September 11th, we had a president who didn't wring his hands and wonder what America had done wrong to deserve this attack. I thank God we had a president who understood that America was attacked not for what we had done wrong, but for what we do right."
Kerry, in contrast, barely knows his own mind on the crucial issues of the day, the governor charged. "This is a candidate who has to Google his own name to find out where he stands," he said.
Washington Bureau Chief Timothy M. Phelps contributed to this story.