- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 29, 2004

The Republican National Convention, running tomorrow through Thursday on Broadway, will feature a famous movie star, a decorated war hero, “America’s mayor” and a conservative Democrat whose heart has left his party.

All will be speaking in prime time in New York City on behalf of the re-election of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, giving the convention the most political star power since Ronald Reagan’s immense popularity sparked the rise of the Republican Party to a governing majority in the 1980s.

Yet all those prime-time speakers — except for rogue conservative Democrat Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia — are centrists, a fact that pushes onto television screens an ongoing struggle for the soul of the party.

Conservatives have been grumbling for weeks about the prime-time keynote-speaking lineup of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday and Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani tomorrow.

But the sight of Mr. Miller betraying a party that he contends has abandoned him might be enough to mend any bruised egos.

“Yes, conservatives are going to feel somewhat neglected in terms of the range of convention speakers,” said Phil Kent, an alternate delegate from DeKalb County, Ga. “But the choice of conservative Democrat Zell Miller as the keynote speaker is a wonderful political windfall for the Bush-Cheney ticket.

“The American body politic needs to hear a Democrat colleague of John Kerry underscore on prime-time TV why President Bush is a far better commander in chief in the war on terrorism and in managing the economic recovery,” he said.

Mr. Kent, a conservative author, added that the maverick and sharp-witted Mr. Miller might give viewers more rhetorical fireworks than they saw at the managed and muffled Democratic convention last month.

“He openly calls Kerry spineless, and he may get even tougher on Kerry at the convention,” Mr. Kent said.

Charlie Black, an unofficial political adviser to the Bush-Cheney campaign, said the most important speeches will, obviously, be given by the president and vice president. Mr. Bush, especially, will be trying to restore the strong faith the country had in his leadership during the period immediately after the September 11 attacks, he noted.

However, the sight of a lifelong Democrat speaking on behalf of a Republican to be president will be powerful, Mr. Black said, especially because just 12 years ago Mr. Miller gave the nominating speech for Bill Clinton.

“I think Zell Miller will turn out to be one of the most important speakers,” added Mr. Black, who expects the convention’s star-studded speaking lineup to attract more casual political viewers than the Democrats’ more conventional slate.

“He’s going to be standing there as a lifelong Democrat talking about how his party left him,” Mr. Black said. “The most important issue for the next generation is the war on terror, and Miller will say that Bush has led it effectively. That might have an impact on viewers who aren’t Republicans.”

Mr. Bush will deliver his nomination acceptance speech from a special stage pushed out into the middle of Madison Square Garden and surrounded by Republican delegates.

The break from tradition, where the nominee stands high above and in front of the delegates on a conventional stage, is a way to get Mr. Bush “closer to people,” said the president’s chief media adviser, Mark McKinnon.

“I think people are used to seeing conventions a certain way, and it gets old and tired,” Mr. McKinnon told the New York Times. “So we want to do something new and refreshing so that people might look at it differently.”

While this will be a new convention tactic, Mr. Bush has stood on centralized stages while on the campaign trail for weeks. He tends to hold the microphone in his hand while stalking the stage and making eye contact with the crowd surrounding him.

War: The hot topic

Where Mr. Kerry made his service in the Vietnam War the centerpiece of his convention, Mr. Bush will focus on the ongoing war on terror. The Massachusetts senator argues that his war experience as a young man has prepared him to lead the current war better than the current commander in chief.

The president, unable to match Mr. Kerry’s war resume because he remained stateside serving in the Texas Air National Guard, will argue that the events of September 11 steeled him for the fight against terrorism ahead.

And by waging this war effectively for three years, he has earned another term to continue the aggressive military and diplomatic policies that Mr. Kerry has all but promised to scale back.

Mr. McCain, who lost a bitter primary campaign to Mr. Bush in 2000, has nonetheless become an effective and frequent surrogate for the president in recent months. A war hero who endured more than five years in North Vietnamese prison camps, he has used his considerable popularity and prestige to argue that Mr. Bush must be re-elected to continue his war policies — and stymie Mr. Kerry’s plans.

He will speak about those issues again at the convention, where his appeal to the all-important independent and undecided voters can be used to its best effect.

Mr. Giuliani, a mayor who became a national icon after his calm, commanding performance while New York City was under attack, told Fox News that he will argue that Mr. Bush has brought “us through one of the worst times in our nation’s history.”

“President Bush brought us through,” Mr. Giuliani said. “This country is stronger now than it was then. We are confronting terrorism, rather than playing defense against it.”

Since leaving office in 2002, he has made a living as a motivational speaker and author of books on leadership qualities and he has hinted that he will lean on that experience during his turn on at the podium.

Mr. Giuliani said he will argue that Mr. Kerry has “shown a propensity to change his mind when he’s under pressure,” but that Mr. Bush has proven to have “the principle characteristics of a great leader.”

“We are at a time of great peril, and we need a president who can stay consistent,” Mr. Giuliani told Fox, adding that history will prove Mr. Bush “a great president no matter what happens in the campaign.”

Democratic political consultant Dick Morris said one of the biggest challenges for Mr. Bush is to convince the country that despite not being attacked since September 11, terrorists are still plotting catastrophe.

“Bush needs to stress how he has kept us safe and raise the sense of threat and danger to the nation,” said Mr. Morris, who steered Bill Clinton to re-election in 1996. “Bush will do it just fine.”

He doesn’t need much help. A Pew Research Center poll released last week showed that national security and foreign affairs was the top priority for voters in this election — the first time that category has led the poll since the Vietnam War.

This is the one issue where Mr. Bush has never trailed Mr. Kerry, with even a USA Today poll taken right after the Democrats made their case for national security showing the Bush team with a 54 percent to 41 percent lead.

“Most polls show that people feel safer as a result of his policies,” said Karlyn Bowman, a poll analyst for the American Enterprise Institute. “Bush gets high marks on the war on terror, and it’s a substantial advantage over Kerry.

“I think, however, that he has to continue to make the case for what he wants to do in Iraq, because there is more skepticism about that in the polls.”

Recapturing the people

Mr. Bush is a known commodity, unlike Mr. Kerry before his campaign, and that’s part of his problem. Nearly three years to the day that this year’s convention will be closing in New York, the World Trade Center just blocks away became a smoldering grave for nearly 3,000 people.

The president’s performance — expressing deep sorrow for the loss of life, determination to fight back at the terrorists and a kindred spirit with the firefighters digging through the rubble — put his job approval in the 80 percent stratosphere.

That was no small feat for a man who lost the popular vote to Al Gore and was left to lead a country while Democrats began a strategy of painting him as an illegitimate president.

And after a war in Afghanistan and a longer, bloodier struggle to rebuild a chaotic Iraq, public confidence in Mr. Bush has waned considerably.

But Mr. Bush will enter New York to accept his party’s nomination on Thursday in much better shape in the polls than he could have hoped. The small bounce Mr. Kerry enjoyed after his convention last month has all but evaporated, with the president gaining in polls taken nationally and in key swing states.

A Gallup poll released last week put Mr. Bush up among likely voters nationwide 50 percent to 47 percent for Mr. Kerry. A Los Angeles Times poll showed the president up 49 percent to 46 percent among registered voters, a category that usually leans Democratic.

The Times poll also put Mr. Bush up in Missouri 46 percent to 44 percent, and gave him a 5-percentage-point lead in Wisconsin and a 5-point lead in Ohio. All three of those states have been virtually tied for months, with the Massachusetts senator usually slightly ahead.

Having a convention so close to the greatest one-day loss of civilian life in American history is meant to remind voters — if not subtly — of the Mr. Bush they admired in late 2001.

“Mr. Bush has to remind the nation — in one of the few times he will speak and the whole nation will be listening — about what they liked about him,” Mrs. Bowman said.

The Republicans convention theme is a mouthful: “Fulfilling America’s Promise — building a safer world and a more hopeful America.”

While there will be much talk about the economy, education, and Mr. Bush’s signing of a prescription-drug benefit for seniors, the focus will be on the word “safer.” Republicans see it as their Election Day trump card after a brief economic slump and near-constant stream of attacks by Democratic presidential candidates, and groups supporting Mr. Kerry, have taken a toll.

The president’s likability, Mrs. Bowman said, has taken a hit, but is still respectable.

“People still like George Bush,” she said.

But certainly not all the people. Tens of thousands of protesters are expected to descend upon New York to harass Republicans and steal the limelight from the president.

Among the groups sending contingents are some that have been protesting Mr. Bush’s policies and presidency from the start: the AIDS activist group ACT UP; feminists Code Pink, the National Organization for Women and NARAL — Pro-Choice America; and the anti-war Not In Our Name and September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.

Some of the lesser-known but creative groups include Axis of Eve, which describes itself as a “coalition of woman who express their disgust with President Bush by publicly wearing bright-colored underwear with political slogans.”

Another is Food Not Bombs, a “self-styled revolutionary movement dedicated to nonviolence and the distribution of free vegetarian food to all those who want it.”

Party conflict

Not every delegation at the Republican convention likes each other, though. The ideological struggle over the soul of the party — what conservatives thought had been theirs since Mr. Reagan won the White House in 1980 — will rage again in New York, albeit quietly.

Prominent Christian conservatives, such as the Revs. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, will be conspicuously absent from the podium. Only after complaints were lodged about the centrist-heavy speaking lineup were conservative stalwarts Sens. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Sam Brownback of Kansas and Rep. Anne M. Northup of Kentucky added.

Their speaking slots are not in prime time and will be missed by most casual political observers.

Indeed, an ideological reading of the full speaking lineup puts the ratio of conservatives to centrists at around 1 to 3, respectively.

That pleases Chris Barron, political director for the Log Cabin Republicans, which advocates homosexual issues and acceptance within the party.

“I think it’s clear that the party’s leadership realizes that they need to show America a face that is going to appeal to moderates and independents and undecided voters,” Mr. Barron said. “This is not the party of Rick Santorum. It’s the party of Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain and Arnold Schwarzenegger and George Pataki.”

An issue that connects with conservatives — Mr. Bush’s support for a constitutional amendment protecting traditional marriage — will likely be mentioned at the convention. Party insiders predict it will be Mr. Santorum who brings it up, but it is not expected to be an explicit topic of prime-time discussion.

Even Mr. Bush only brushes by the topic in his standard stump speech.

Mr. Barron thinks that’s a good idea. An even better one, he said, would be to drop the issue altogether.

“Obviously, the excitement over this president has clearly been damaged by the federal marriage amendment, by his making it a central part of his re-election campaign,” he said.

Giving a sense of how complicated this issue is — and how there is room for Republicans to stay loyal and disagree — Mr. Cheney seems to agree with the Log Cabin Republicans.

The vice president told supporters at a campaign stop last week in Iowa that his “own preference” on the issue does not include a constitutional amendment that would ban homosexual “marriage.”

“With respect to the question of relationships, my view is that freedom means freedom for everyone,” said Mr. Cheney, one of whose two daughters is a lesbian. “People ought to be free to enter any kind of relationship they want to.”

The Log Cabin Republicans will push for what they call a “Unity Plank” in the party’s platform that “simply recognizes that Republicans can disagree on things from time to time.”

Republican glitz

And to prove that not just Democrats can attract Hollywood celebrities, the Republicans have announced their entertainment lineup.

The musical slate is heavy with country acts — with stars Brooks & Dunn, Lee Ann Womack, Sara Evans, the Gatlin Brothers, and Darryl Worley — and also includes Christian performers Third Day, gospel singer Dana Glover and tenor Daniel Rodriguez, a former New York City cop whose renditions of “God Bless America” led him to become “the unofficial singer of New York City’s police department” after the September 11 attacks.

Though Hollywood contains a few acknowledged and proud Bush supporters — such as Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis, Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears — they will not be making official appearances.

The Republicans were able, however, to snare actor Ron Silver — an outspoken liberal who is now backing Mr. Bush’s re-election based on his performance in the war on terror — and Elizabeth Hasselbeck, a contestant on the second season of “Survivor” and member of the morning chat-fest “The View,” who is married to Washington Redskins backup quarterback Tim Hasselbeck.

Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, director of the centrist Main Street Republicans, said she is working on snaring hip-hop mogul Sean Combs — also known as “P. Diddy” — to attend one of her group’s forums on education reform.

“He could help show that Republicans really do care about education and leaving something behind,” Mrs. Resnick said.

The bigger star the Main Street Republicans will showcase is a political one: Newt Gingrich. The conservative leader of the Republican revolution in the House will speak about the importance of centrists and how they are the key to establishing long-term majority status across the country.

“We’re looking to showcase the moderates and remind them that we are an important part of the party,” Mrs. Resnick said. “The conservatives can complain, but realistically, they need us.”

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