NEW YORK - Republicans hailed President Bush as the steady, strong leader the country needs and leveled harsh criticism against his Democratic rival, John Kerry, as a weak and waffling politician, as the party opened a convention steeped in images of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Emotional tributes to the victims of the attacks and military men and women set the tone for the four-day party gathering, where Republicans hope to highlight Bush's decisiveness in perilous times.
"He has been tested and has risen to the most important challenge of our time, and I salute him." said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the maverick Republican who enjoys wide popularity among independent voters. "He has not wavered. He has not flinched from the hard choices. He will not yield, and neither will we."
Former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York, a moderate who personified the city's brave response to Sept. 11, said in prepared remarks that Bush 'has remained rock solid' since the attacks. "It doesn't matter how he is demonized. It doesn't matter what the media does to ridicule him or misinterpret him or defeat him."
The sentiment clearly pleased the crowd and the former mayor. "I've never seen so many Republicans in New York City." he exclaimed. "I finally feel at home!'
Giuliani took aim at Kerry in a speech that praised Bush's strategy for fighting terrorism, saying in his prepared remarks that the Massachusetts Democrat "has made it the rule to change his position, rather than the exception."
Tartly invoking a populist phrase used by the Democratic vice presidential candidate, John Edwards, Giuliani said the North Carolinian's "two Americas' theme must refer to "one where John Kerry can vote for something and another where he can vote against the same thing."
McCain, whose background as a decorated Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war makes him a respected voice on national security issues, vigorously defended Bush's decision to go to war against Iraq.
Quoting Franklin D. Roosevelt as he sought to put the war in Iraq into the context of a historic fight against terrorism, McCain - Bush's rival in 2000 - said the nation is engaged in "a fight between right and wrong, good and evil. So it is, whether we wished it or not, that we have come to the test of our generation, to our rendezvous with destiny."
"I believe as strongly today as ever, the mission was necessary, achievable and noble." said McCain, who is who is putting aside the bitterness of his 2000 contest against Bush to campaign for the president. "For his determination to undertake it, and for his unflagging resolve to see it through to a just end, President Bush deserves not only our support, but our admiration."
McCain's speech was interrupted by raucous cheers from delegates as he countered the notion advanced by many Democrats, and documentary filmmaker Michael Moore in his movie Fahrenheit 9/11, that Bush was looking for a reason to go to war in Iraq.
"Our choice wasn't between a benign status quo and the bloodshed of war; it was between war and a graver threat. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise." McCain said. "Not our political opponents. And certainly not a disingenuous filmmaker."
Moore, who was seated in the press stands off the floor as a guest columnist for USA Today, smiled, waved and spread his hands in a "who me?' gesture as the crowd of thousands turned to him and began chanting 'Four more years!' while pumping four fingers in the air. As their screams continued, Moore spread his thumb and forefinger in an "L' - for "loser."
Delegates convened at Madison Square Garden - heavily secured with fences and barricades and guarded by hundreds of law enforcement personnel - on a day when Bush conceded that there might be no end to the signature challenge of his presidency: the war on terrorism.
"I don't think you can win it." Bush told NBC. "But I think you can create the conditions that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world."
Giuliani presented his speech as a nonpartisan appeal to voters on Bush's behalf, lauding the president as a leader willing to make tough choices.
"In choosing a president, we really don't choose a Republican or a Democrat, a conservative or liberal." he said in prepared remarks. "Having strong beliefs, being able to stick with them through popular and unpopular times, is the most important characteristic of a great leader."
But Giuliani accused Kerry of flip-flopping on war and terrorism.
"President Bush sees world terrorism for the evil that it is." the former mayor said. "John Kerry has no such clear, precise and consistent vision."
McCain, by contrast, never mentioned Kerry - a close friend of his - by name during his speech, nor did he discuss the Vietnam War, which has become a hot-button issue in the race.
"I don't doubt the sincerity of my Democratic friends." he said. 'And they should not doubt ours."