NEW YORK — Vice President Dick Cheney, in a speech that capped a night of attacks on Sen. John Kerry, told the Republican National Convention yesterday that the Democratic presidential candidate has made “the wrong call on national security” throughout his political career.
“A senator can be wrong for 20 years, without consequence to the nation,” Mr. Cheney told the packed hall.
“But a president — a president — always casts the deciding vote. And in this time of challenge, America needs — and America has — a president we can count on to get it right,” he said.
Mr. Cheney’s remarks were preceded by a blistering speech by Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, who accused Mr. Kerry of lacking “the backbone” to fight the war on terror and slammed his own party’s “manic obsession to bring down our commander in chief.”
The prime-time appearance by a lifelong Democrat at the Republican convention was a historic political event that is likely to be the stuff of President Bush’s ads in the fall.
After “listing all the weapon systems that Senator Kerry tried his best to shut down,” Mr. Miller asked rhetorically: “This is the man who wants to be the commander in chief of our U.S. armed forces?”
“U.S. forces armed with what? Spitballs?” he said to thunderous applause.
“For more than 20 years, on every one of the great issues of freedom and security, John Kerry has been more wrong, more weak and more wobbly than any other national figure,” Mr. Miller said.
“As a war protester, Kerry blamed our military. As a senator, he voted to weaken our military. And nothing shows that more sadly and more clearly than his vote this year to deny protective armor for our troops in harm’s way, far away,” the Georgian said.
The Cheney and Miller speeches were clearly aimed at the Democratic National Convention’s effort to strengthen the national-security credentials of the Kerry-Edwards ticket, with polls showing the ongoing war on terror as voters’ top concern.
That effort has been tarnished in recent weeks by charges that Mr. Kerry embellished the Vietnam War military record — a centerpiece of the Democratic convention.
The Republican convention concludes today when Mr. Bush formally accepts the Republican nomination and will hit the campaign trail for the 60-day stretch run amid an expected bounce in polls, which already have moved his way in the past couple of weeks.
Mr. Cheney focused on what has become the overriding theme of the convention: the war on terrorism.
“Moments come along in history when leaders must make fundamental decisions about how to confront a long-term challenge abroad and how best to keep the American people secure,” Mr. Cheney said. “This nation has reached another of those defining moments.”
The president “understands the miracle of this great country,” Mr. Cheney said, and “knows the hope that drives it and shares the optimism that has long been so important a part of our national character.”
That is why Mr. Bush is determined to aggressively and unapologetically fight the war on terrorism, the vice president said.
“He gets up each and every day determined to keep our great nation safe so that generations to come will know the freedom and opportunities we have known — and more,” Mr. Cheney said.
Just as he does on the campaign trail, Mr. Cheney attacked Mr. Kerry for what the Republicans characterize as inconsistencies on nearly every issue, especially the war.
“On Iraq, Senator Kerry has disagreed with many of his fellow Democrats,” Mr. Cheney said. “But Senator Kerry’s liveliest disagreement is with himself. His back-and-forth reflects a habit of indecision and sends a message of confusion — and it is all part of a pattern.
“Senator Kerry says he sees two Americas. It makes the whole thing mutual — America sees two John Kerrys,” Mr. Cheney said to a crowd that repeatedly interrupted his speech with chants of “four more years” and “U-S-A.”
Brimming with confidence, the vice president joked that for the Bush-Cheney ticket, “the signs are good — even in Massachusetts.”
“According to a news account last month, people leaving the Democratic National Convention asked a Boston policeman for directions. He replied, ‘Leave here — and go vote Republican,’” he said.
Mr. Miller, a conservative Democrat, was brought out to tell voters in great detail and with flair why he can’t support his party’s candidate for president.
Republicans think the senator’s speech will help sway undecided voters, especially because in 1992, he helped put Bill Clinton on the path to the White House by delivering the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in the same arena.
Nearly every line Mr. Miller uttered — especially his harshest attacks on Mr. Kerry — electrified the crowd, causing it to erupt with hoots, cheers and boos on cue.
“Like you, I ask which leader it is today that has the vision, the willpower and, yes, the backbone to best protect my family,” Mr. Miller said. “The clear answer to that question has placed me in this hall with you tonight. For my family is more important than my party.”
Mr. Miller, whose remarks were among the most blistering of the convention, said Democrats have proven with their partisan attacks on Mr. Bush that they can no longer be trusted to protect the country from terrorists.
“Where is the bipartisanship in this country when we need it most?” said Mr. Miller, who has earned a reputation in the Senate for collegial bipartisanship.
“Now, while young Americans are dying in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrats’ manic obsession to bring down our commander in chief. What has happened to the party I’ve spent my life working in?” he asked.
“Time after time in our history, in the face of great danger, Democrats and Republicans worked together to ensure that freedom would not falter,” he said. “But not today. Motivated more by partisan politics than by national security, today’s Democratic leaders see America as an occupier, not a liberator.
“And nothing makes this Marine madder than someone calling American troops occupiers rather than liberators,” he said.
Mr. Miller implied that the Democratic Party has become so blinded by animus for Mr. Bush that it now blames America for the murderous hatred expressed by terrorists.
“They don’t believe there is any real danger in the world except that which America brings upon itself through our clumsy and misguided foreign policy,” Mr. Miller said. “It is not their patriotism — it is their judgment that has been so sorely lacking.”
Mr. Kerry is from that wing of the party, Mr. Miller said, yoking him to his Massachusetts colleague Sen. Edward M. Kennedy — a darling among liberals and a political pinata for conservatives.
“And no pair has been more wrong, more loudly, more often than the two senators from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy and John Kerry,” he said to howls from the partisan crowds.
He said Mr. Kerry’s decision to focus his campaign on his four months of combat duty in the Vietnam War, rather than his 20 years in the Senate, shows that he’s not ready to fight the current battles.
“John Kerry wants to refight yesterday’s war,” Mr. Miller said. “George Bush believes we have to fight today’s war and be ready for tomorrow’s challenges. George Bush is committed to providing the kind of forces it takes to root out terrorists.
“Right now, the world just cannot afford an indecisive America,” he said. “Senator Kerry has made it clear that he would use military force only if approved by the United Nations. Kerry would let Paris decide when America needs defending. I want Bush to decide.
“Fainthearted self-indulgence will put at risk all we care about in this world. In this hour of danger, our president has had the courage to stand up. And this Democrat is proud to stand up with him,” Mr. Miller said.
Democrats took the high road when commenting on Mr. Miller.
“Let’s remember what Zell was and forgive him for what he’s become,” said a statement released by the Democratic National Committee.
Asked his opinion of Mr. Miller speaking in New York last night, former Democratic Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia said: “Zell Miller is a great American.”
Pressed on the issue, the Kerry supporter repeated, “Zell Miller is a great American.”
A poll conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center showed that Mr. Bush has erased the small gains that Mr. Kerry had enjoyed on such traits as optimism, inspiration and sharing the values of ordinary Americans.
And although Republicans figured that their candidate would trail coming out of the convention, the two men are tied at 47 percent, according to yesterday’s Rasmussen daily tracking poll.
The convention’s program last night also featured a speech by Michael Reagan, a counter to the big splash that his brother, Ron Reagan, made at the Democratic convention when he sharply criticized Republican policy on stem-cell research.
Before introducing a video tribute to his father, Mr. Reagan took a jab at his brother.
“I’ve come to honor my father, not to politicize his name,” he said.
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney stepped to the podium to talk about what he has seen close-up and described Mr. Kerry’s inconsistent voting record.
“He’s campaigned against the war all year, but says he’d vote yes today,” Mr. Romney said.
“I don’t want presidential leadership that comes in 57 varieties,” he said, taking a shot at Mr. Kerry’s second wife, ketchup heiress Teresa Heinz Kerry.
Mr. Cheney’s wife, Lynne, also spoke last night and introduced her husband.
The Republican National Committee announced yesterday that Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the liberation of Iraq, officially has endorsed Mr. Bush and will speak to the delegates today as would former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez, the Bush-backed U.S. Senate candidate who won Florida’s primary on Tuesday.
Mr. Bush arrived in New York last night and watched some of the convention with firefighters before heading back to his hotel in Manhattan.
The posh Waldorf-Astoria Hotel was surrounded by sand-filled dump trucks and thick concrete barriers to blunt a bomb attack.
Charles Hurt and Frank Murray contributed to this report.