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GOP Resolved to Portray President as Unwavering

Times Staff Writer

When former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) were named to headline the Republican National Convention’s opening night, most analysts in both parties took it as evidence that President Bush’s campaign wanted the gathering to project a message of moderation.

But in their speeches Monday night, Giuliani and McCain signaled that the real mission for the Bush campaign this week was to send a message of strength.

In their emphasis on Bush’s determination and resolve, they dramatized how heavily the GOP was betting that many voters uneasy about the president’s policy direction would support him for reelection if they believed he could set a steadier course in a turbulent time than his rival, Democrat John F. Kerry.

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In one of the evening’s most revealing passages, Giuliani argued that voters should assess the two contenders not through an ideological or partisan prism, but above all on their personal qualities of leadership.

“In choosing a president, we don’t really choose just a Republican or Democrat, a conservative or a liberal,” Giuliani said. “We choose a leader. And in times of danger and war, as we are now in, Americans should put leadership at the core of their decision.”

The portrayal of leadership as a value that transcends and trumps ideology represented an effort from the Bush campaign to shift the election debate toward more favorable ground. Polls continue to show the public deeply divided over Bush’s key policy decisions, especially the invasion of Iraq.

But surveys also show that more Americans pick Bush than Kerry when asked which one is a strong and determined leader. Bush’s fate could turn heavily on whether swing voters place more weight on their doubts about his choices or on their confidence in his tenacity.

“That’s the question of the election,” said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, an independent polling organization. “Even though he faces significant disapproval for his handling of the economy and Iraq, he continues to hang in there in the race, or even lead, because people have faith in him as a leader at a time when the country prizes leadership.”

The emphasis on resolve is not risk-free. Although polls show voters consider Bush more steadfast than Kerry, far more Americans also rate him as more stubborn and inflexible than his rival.

And by defending so emphatically the decision to invade Iraq, Republicans risk suggesting to voters that if Bush is reelected, nothing will change in a conflict that about half of the public believes was not worth the cost, according to polls.

Indeed, a principal Democratic argument against Bush is that he is so unwavering that he refuses to change course even when conditions seemingly demand it. At the Democratic National Convention last month, former President Clinton summarized that case when he pointedly declared, “Strength and wisdom are not opposing values.”

With Giuliani’s emotional re-creation of the chaotic first hours after the Sept. 11 attacks and McCain’s spirited defense of the Iraq war, the evening’s principal speeches struck a martial tone so persistent that it sometimes left the session sounding as much like a recruiting drive as a political rally. Giuliani and McCain presented the struggle against terrorism as the defining challenge of American life, possibly for as long as the next generation.

With its heavy emphasis on leadership, the GOP convention’s first night represented a direct response to the Democrats’ strategy at their convention. Almost to the exclusion of all other goals, Kerry built his convention message around an effort to convince voters he would be a strong leader in the war on terrorism, primarily by emphasizing his experience under fire in Vietnam.

Polls immediately after the Democratic convention showed Kerry narrowing -- but notably not eliminating -- the gap with Bush when voters were asked which man would provide strong leadership for the country. But in the month since, Kerry’s position on that critical variable has eroded under the attacks on his Vietnam-era record from a group of veterans opposing him, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

An ABC/Washington Post survey released Monday night showed that voters preferred Bush over Kerry 54% to 39% when asked which man was a strong leader; in early August, Bush’s advantage on that question was 4 percentage points.

Likewise, Bush led Kerry by 13 percentage points in the survey when voters were asked which man could keep the country safer; Bush’s advantage had dwindled to 3 percentage points earlier in August.

One senior GOP strategist familiar with campaign strategy said Giuliani and McCain were chosen as opening speakers not because of their reputations as moderates, but because of their capacity to reinforce a message of strength.

“These are people who are held in high esteem because of their leadership qualities and public character, vouching for President Bush on those same qualities,” the strategist said.

Both men were emphatic in their praise of Bush. “He has not wavered,” McCain said. “He has not flinched from the hard choices. He will not yield.” Giuliani compared Bush as a steadfast leader not only to President Reagan, a familiar touchstone for Republicans, but to Winston Churchill.

Both evoked the unity Americans felt after the Sept. 11 attacks, as if to remind many voters that they once saw Bush, now a bitterly polarizing figure, as a leader beyond politics.

McCain offered no criticism of Kerry, a fellow Vietnam veteran with whom he had worked closely on the normalization of relations with Vietnam.

More broadly, in a speech whose language sometimes drifted toward the oblique, McCain sought to counter the Democratic argument that Kerry would pursue a fundamentally different strategy in the war on terrorism.

McCain insisted that Bush was just as willing to build alliances as his critics. He suggested the key difference between the two sides was that Bush had a more realistic view of when America had to act alone in its own defense. “That is not just an expression of our strength,” McCain said in a subtle rejoinder to Clinton’s remarks. “It’s a measure of our wisdom.”

In a speech that wandered like a cabbie trying to drive up a fare, Giuliani was more confrontational toward Kerry. Although praising Kerry for “his service to our nation,” he presented the Massachusetts senator as a man who had “made it the rule to change his position, rather than the exception.”

Bush may have complicated the evening’s message when he told Matt Lauer of the NBC program “Today” in an interview aired Monday morning that he did not believe America could eradicate the threat of terrorism.

The Kerry campaign immediately jumped on the statement to question Bush’s resolve, the very attribute the convention’s first night intended to burnish.

It is unclear if the Kerry campaign can generate sustained controversy over Bush’s remarks. The president’s comments voiced the conviction of many foreign policy analysts that the war on terrorism, like the war on poverty or the war on drugs, represented an open-ended struggle against a problem that could be controlled or ameliorated but never eliminated.

Still, Bush’s comment created at least some short-term dissonance with the evening’s message, particularly since Giuliani posited a future in which “terrorist attacks throughout the world decrease and then end.”

Likely, the bigger question over time is whether undecided voters, hearing so many testimonials to Bush as a man who never backs down, will see the president as decisive or dogmatic. The Republican convention’s first night underscored the president’s commitment to his course. It remains for the president to convince a majority of Americans that his course is one they want to follow.

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That’s the way it is

The GOP has allotted a media skybox in Madison Square Garden to Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite channel -- as did Democrats during their convention. But although Democrats made the Arabic news outlet remove their banner, Republicans have let the Al Jazeera logo stay.


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