- The Washington Times - Monday, August 30, 2004

NEW YORK — Republicans belittled Democratic Sen. John Kerry as a shift-in-the-wind campaigner unworthy of the White House today at the opening of their national convention, lavishing praise on President Bush as a steady, decisive leader in an age of terrorism.

“In this great struggle, we need a commander in chief who is a beacon, not a weather vane,” said Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico in remarks prepared for delivery to delegates gathered four miles from the site where terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001. “We have one in George W. Bush.”

“Kerry is weak on war and wrong on taxes,” added House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois.

Bush campaigned in New Hampshire as the GOP opened its four-day gathering, and triggered an instant campaign stir when he told an interviewer he doubted victory is possible in the war on terror.

“I don’t think you can win it. But I think you can create the conditions that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world,” he told NBC. Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards quickly labeled that a concession of defeat in the war that terrorists launched in 2001, and White House spokesman Scott McClellan hastened to clarify the president’s remarks.

Bush’s high command scripted an opening night convention program that included a remembrance of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks as well as a tribute to the men and women serving in the armed forces. Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani drew prime-time speaking assignments. Both men command political appeal outside the president’s conservative base and are strong supporters of Bush’s stewardship in the war on terror.

Not all the speakers mentioned Kerry by name, but the criticism was unmistakable.

“This fight against terrorism takes decisiveness, not contradiction,” said Bernard Kerik, a former New York police commissioner who worked for the Bush administration helping to rebuild the Iraqi police force.

“Most importantly, it takes courage and inspirational leadership in the White House. There are two candidates in this race, but only one fills those needs,” Kerik added.

Hastert broadened the criticism beyond the war to encompass domestic issues.

“He is on the wrong side of taxation, of litigation and of regulation,” he said in prepared remarks. Referring to the Democratic National Convention as a “Boston Tax Party,” the House GOP leader said that instead of “throwing tea in the Boston Harbor, John Kerry wants to throw the taxpayers overboard.”

The delegates met twice during the day at Madison Square Garden, four miles from the scarred landscape where the World Trade Center twin towers once stood. Officials mustered a security force of thousands in the area around the hall, part of an effort to thwart any attempt at a repeat attack. A helicopter circled the skies over the arena, while police barricades made an 18-square-block surrounding the Garden off-limits to most vehicles.

Inside the hall, Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne were ushered to their seats in late morning, in time to hear his name placed in nomination for another term. “Four more years” the delegates shouted in unison.

Cheney speaks Wednesday night, followed by Bush’s prime-time acceptance speech Thursday, an appearance that marks the end of the convention season and the beginning of the fall campaign for the White House.

Polls show Bush in a tough race for re-election, and Kerry has been helped by surveys in which at least a strong plurality of Americans says the country is headed in the wrong direction. At the same time, the president receives high marks from the public for his decisiveness and leadership. And recent attacks by an outside group of veterans on Kerry’s decorated Vietnam War record have coincided with polls suggesting increased momentum for the incumbent.

Democrats call the attacks a Republican-financed smear campaign.

Even the conservative GOP platform, crafted to Bush’s specifications and approved swiftly by the delegates, lauded the president’s response to the attacks. “The president’s most solemn duty is to protect our country. George W. Bush has kept that charge,” it said.

Envisioning a new “ownership era,” it also endorsed additional tax relief and major changes to Social Security allowing individuals to use a portion of their payroll taxes to establish personal retirement accounts.

The platform also calls for constitutional amendments to ban gay marriages and abortions, and upholds the administration’s policy limiting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to lines in existence as of three years ago. It also expressed opposition to civil unions for gays.

The evening oratory was pitched at a different audience.

The appearances at the convention podium by McCain and Giuliani were part of a larger convention-week effort by Republicans to broaden Bush’s appeal to independents, moderates and disaffected Democrats.

Both McCain and Giuliani oppose the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, for example, as does one of Tuesday night’s featured speakers, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Bush’s remarks on winning the war on terror drew immediate condemnation from Edwards and numerous other Democrats.

“This is no time to declare defeat - it won’t be easy and it won’t be quick, but we have a comprehensive long-term plan to make America safer,” he said of the Kerry campaign. “And that’s a difference.”

But McClellan saw it differently. “He was talking about winning it in the conventional sense … about how this is a different kind of war and we face an unconventional enemy,” said the president’s spokesman. “I don’t think you can expect that there will ever be a formal surrender or a treaty signed like we have in wars past.”

New Yorkers were under persistent prodding to “play nice” with Republicans who showed up in large numbers in their overwhelmingly Democratic city.

Not everyone was so inclined.

Some delegates said anti-Bush protesters greeted them with an upraised middle finger. “Inconvenient Republican Convention Sale” read a handwritten sign in one small store a few blocks from the arena - not exactly a merchant’s welcome mat.

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