Can Bush rise to the challenge at GOP convention?

August 30, 2004|By Jules Witcover

NEW YORK - An incumbent president seeking re-election customarily enters his nominating convention poised to trumpet his first-term successes and project how much better the country will be in his second term.

An exception is in wartime, when he must remind the voters of the unfinished task ahead and rally the country to stay the course until victory is achieved.

These are the challenges that face George W. Bush this week in New York at the tail end of a first term whose limited successes have been overshadowed by the war of choice he began in Iraq, which continues to plague him politically.

Yet in the weeks approaching the Republican convention, Mr. Bush and his surrogates spent as much or more time campaigning in a negative mode in an effort to undermine the credentials for the presidency of his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry.

Mr. Kerry, at his party's convention in Boston last month, offered as the centerpiece of his qualifications his service and record as a decorated Vietnam War veteran. He surrounded himself with retired generals and admirals as well as combat shipmates who vouched for his heroism.

Knowing that national security will be critical in the minds of voters in November, the display was designed to enhance Mr. Kerry's stature as an acceptable alternative to a wartime president who plays on patriotism to hold voter support.

As a result, the interlude between the two party conventions was occupied with this competition. It was fanned first by Kerry television ads lauding his Vietnam service and then ignited into a full-fledged war of the airwaves by anti-Kerry Vietnam veterans challenging his war record and credibility.

The disclosure that the Bush campaign's chief counsel, Benjamin L. Ginsberg, had provided legal advice to the anti-Kerry group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, in violation of provisions requiring full independence of such "soft money" groups, gave the Kerry strategists an opening to cry foul, and they did.

Sound politics now demands that the Bush campaign pivot away from its heavy negative focus on Mr. Kerry and that it defend the Bush first-term record and lay out the president's goals for the next four years.

Neither his campaign speeches nor the party's platform, written in stealth and in generalities, have provided much of a new second-term road map for the undecided voters, whose decisions the polls all say will determine the outcome of the election.

The advance planning for the Republican convention in the city worst hit by the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and on the eve of the third anniversary of that tragedy, anticipates a patriotism-laden rallying of the electorate behind the wartime president. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the hero of the city's recovery, is cast as a principal cheerleader.

All of this was to be expected, as was the massing of protesters in the streets of New York and expansive security precautions sparked by concern that terrorists would seek to exploit the tensions surrounding the convention with another long-awaited assault.

In this atmosphere, the president will have his hands full giving his nomination convention the forward-looking thrust that can best serve his re-election prospects. Continuing the pre-convention strategy of attacking Mr. Kerry on his Vietnam service, even by a shadow group claiming no affiliation with the Bush campaign, is not likely to achieve that purpose.

At the rival convention in Boston, the Democrats demonstrated considerable discipline in avoiding direct blasts against the Republican president while challenging his handling of the Iraq war's chaotic aftermath. The Republicans face a similar test of whether they can accentuate the positive after working overtime on the negative ahead of their own extravaganza in New York.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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