GOP focuses on undecided voter

The tough-on-terror message Republicans have stressed in Madison Square Garden this week may seem to be wholly of a piece with their main approach to this year's presidential campaign: appeal to the party base at every turn.

But the constant focus on how President George W. Bush will keep us safe from terrorism is a shrewd - and novel - way of appealing to undecided voters as well.

Recent polls show that these voters are similar to John Kerry supporters in their attitudes on many issues. They tend to think the country is on the wrong track, are downbeat about the economy (and Bush's management of it) and pessimistic about the course of the Iraq war.

Most political analysts have concluded that these swing voters, who make up between 5 and 10 percent of the likely electorate, therefore represent fertile ground for Democratic presidential nominee Kerry - and a source of danger for Bush.

Campaigns usually appeal to undecided voters with a mixture of themes and programs aimed at filing down the sharp edges of their core message.

This year, however, the Republicans have apparently turned their back on this strategy in favor of wooing the uncommitted with a much more hard-edged message about the need for toughness in a world beset by violent terrorists. Certainly, they have offered nothing to suggest that a second Bush term would bring a new approach to either the economy or Iraq, the two issues most troubling to swing voters.

Bush strategists seem to be betting that they don't have to; that protecting the nation against terrorism is such an overarching concern that it trumps all the other issues - the economy, health care, education, Iraq - that would normally afford Kerry leverage to tilt the swing voters his way.

Vice President Dick Cheney crystallized this argument in his speech to the convention Wednesday. "Moments come along in history when leaders must make fundamental decisions about how to confront a long-term challenge abroad and how best to keep the American people secure," he said. "This nation has reached another of those defining moments."

This calculation contains two layers. The first is that the GOP "Fear Factor" show will win the votes of most undecideds despite their apprehension regarding Bush's performance on other issues.

The second is that even if Plan A doesn't work and the swingers don't swing Bush's way, they can still be kept away from Kerry by unrelenting attacks on him as weak and indecisive on security issues. In this backup scenario, most undecideds don't vote at all, which means the election turns entirely on which campaign can best energize its loyalists - the very ground on which the Bush partisans have always wanted to fight.

The backup plan was on full display Wednesday night when the keynote speaker, Democratic Sen. Zell Miller, and Cheney spent almost the entire hour of broadcast TV coverage working over Kerry on national security.

It may have reached its apotheosis with Miller, who seemed a hybrid of two Western characters: the frontier undertaker and the hired gunslinger brought in to scare the rabble into line.

Democrats yesterday could barely contain themselves in their outward glee over Miller's strident speech, calling it a gross miscalculation that would alienate all but the most committed Bush voters.

But they and their candidate must still find some way to refute the soft-on-security rap that Republicans have hung around Kerry's neck this week.

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