NEW YORK - When President Bush journeys to this city for the Republican convention, he won't revisit the World Trade Center site. He doesn't need to.
Fighting terrorism is already ground zero in Bush's re-election quest. Reminders of Sept. 11 - and the president's leadership after that disaster - go to the heart of his campaign strategy and will likely dominate news out of the Republican convention over the next four days.
Bush's handling of the war on terrorism is the one issue, above all others, that can earn him a second term, according to strategists in both parties. It is also a theme the president is giving fresh emphasis to as he tries to overcome worries about the direction of the country, the health of the economy and the conflict in Iraq.
"The question is: Who best to lead this country in the war on terror?" Bush said last week. "Who can handle the responsibilities of the commander in chief? Who's got a clear vision of the risks that the country faces?"
National opinion surveys point up the importance of the issue for Bush's candidacy. When voters are asked whom they trust to keep the country safe from terrorism, Bush enjoys a substantial edge over Sen. John Kerry. Many other indicators, from dealing with the economy to restoring respect for America around the world, favor the challenger.
Much of this week's convention, the first ever for Republicans in this heavily Democratic city, will be geared toward reminding voters about Bush's visit to the rubble of the twin towers, three days after the attack. Standing in the still-smoldering ruins, the president grabbed a bullhorn and shouted words of defiance to the hard-hatted rescue workers.
On Wednesday, the night before he delivers his acceptance speech, Bush will reportedly watch the convention on TV from a New York firehouse. Former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the politician who personifies the city's valiant response to the Sept. 11 attack, will likely join him that night.
Using the war on terrorism as a political asset was a White House plan even before the party arranged to stage its convention at Madison Square Garden, a short cab ride from Ground Zero and a few days short of the third anniversary of Sept. 11. More than two years ago, Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, identified the fight against terrorism as a winning issue for Republicans.
"We can go to the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America," Rove told a January 2002 party gathering.
Democratic consultant Bill Carrick said that until Kerry got "diverted" by recent questions about his military service in Vietnam, he had begun to capitalize on voters' concerns about America's vulnerability to another attack.
"Bush is the commander in chief," Carrick said. "He got high marks for 9/11. And he has gotten his best [poll] numbers for that throughout the campaign.
"On the other hand, people don't think the war on terrorism has been won. For example, port security is a huge mess. Kerry was on the right track when he was talking about the 9/11 commission report and the serious structural [intelligence] reforms that are necessary, because that certainly makes the argument for change."
Over the past week, interviews with voters from around the country - conducted as they visited two iconic New York landmarks, the World Trade Center site and the Statue of Liberty - underscored some of the advantages for Bush in the terrorism issue, as well as potential pitfalls.
"This is a lesson that shouldn't be forgotten," said Marilyn Frush, 72, of Burlington, N.J., gesturing over the still-vacant blocks in Lower Manhattan where the twin towers fell. "There are people out there who hate us, and they're going to try to kill us."
Frush, a retired health care administrator and a political independent, isn't happy with parts of Bush's first-term record. She's critical of his Medicare drug reform plan, which she finds ineffectual. But she'll vote for Bush because of his handling of homeland security, "the absolutely most important thing going on in the country for this election. ... If we're taken over by terrorists, nothing else will matter."
Reduced to its essentials, the Republican case for a second Bush term comes down to this: Amid an international war against terrorists, America can't take a chance on new, untested leadership.
That argument resonates with Wayne Schaefer, who works at a lumber yard in Billings, Mont.
"I think it would be bad to change the commander in chief in the middle of the action," said Schaefer, 55, an Army veteran of Vietnam.
A new campaign commercial by Progress for America, a pro-Bush group, praises the president's handling of the Sept. 11 attacks. Using images of Bush's visit to the trade center rubble, the ad's narrator asks viewers to consider: "What if Bush wasn't there. Could John Kerry have shown this leadership?"