- The Washington Times - Friday, September 3, 2004

NEW YORK — Fear or the future?

That is the question for the White House as President Bush catapults out of one of the most successful conventions in recent memory.

With the lesson he learned when his father lost the 1992 presidential election to a Democrat who proposed expansive domestic social programs, Mr. Bush is walking a tightrope to show Americans his second term will offer both security from international terrorism and a domestic policy to make life better for all here at home.

But he will focus most on national security and his plan to keep Americans safe, as he did last night in his speech before thousands of Republicans.

“I am running for president with a clear and positive plan to build a safer world, and a more hopeful America,” the president said last night. Although he painted himself as a “compassionate conservative,” he did not mince words about the threat America faces from abroad.

“The freedom of many, and the future security of our nation, now depend on us,” he said grimly.

Dick Morris, a political analyst who served as a pollster for President Clinton, said the security of the American people — and the president’s record on the issue — must be the central campaign issue.

“The Republican policy of focusing on that issue is absolutely right, substantively and politically. The more the election is about that, the more Bush is likely to win. I think if the Democrats minimize that by saying it’s the politics of fear, they’re badly hurting themselves and explaining, in the course of that, why they shouldn’t be elected because that would imply that they think the fears are illegitimate, and after 9/11, I don’t know how anyone could say that,” Mr. Morris said.

Democrats, however, hope to turn the focus to domestic woes — lost jobs, a sputtering economy, high gasoline prices — and have seized on the president’s rhetoric, labeling it the “politics of fear.”

“For three days, the Republican Party has done nothing but attack John Kerry and try to peddle unfounded fear,” House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland said yesterday. “But these stunningly negative — and totally baseless — attacks are going to fall flat with voters. … Ultimately, this election is about the future, not the past.”

Even before the Republican National Convention, top Democrats were setting out their talking points for the meat of the campaign. Although Republicans say September 11 was a pivotal, defining moment of the Bush presidency, Democrats object to the party’s use of the terrorist attacks as a campaign issue, hoping to dispel fear among Americans as the decisive factor in the November election.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy praised his fellow senator from Massachusetts at the Democratic National Convention, saying Mr. Kerry “knows that a true leader inspires hope and vanquishes fear. This administration does neither. Instead, it brings fear.”

Kerry campaign spokesman Chad Clanton echoed the words, saying Mr. Bush “lacks a plan or a vision of where the nation needs to go, so he’s resorted once again to the politics of fear and distortion.”

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who joined Democratic Chairman Terry McAuliffe and a half-dozen Democratic mayors in the closing session of the party’s rapid-response effort, distilled the Democratic message yesterday: “Are Americans going to react to a message of fear or respond to a message of hope?”

But those charges have not deterred Republicans from making the anxiety of the American people and the threat presented by an unstable world the centerpiece of their presidential campaign.

“We will never lose sight of the greatest challenge of our time: preserving the freedom and security of this nation against determined enemies,” Vice President Dick Cheney said from the convention floor on Wednesday.

Sen. Zell Miller, Georgia Democrat, also cast the presidential election in stark terms.

“Right now, the world just cannot afford an indecisive America. 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,” he said Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.

Tad Devine, a senior Kerry adviser, accused both Mr. Cheney and Mr. Miller of a fear and smear attack.

“I think what we heard tonight was the difference between the politics of hope and the politics of fear. I mean, I think of John Edwards’ acceptance speech in Boston, which was all about hope, the hope for the future of this country, for jobs, for health care, for the possibilities of America, and, tonight, with both Senator Miller and then with the vice president, the politics of fear, smear and attack,” he said.

For Mr. Bush, the decision to stake his re-election on national security and the fear of international threats puts him in a political position similar to that of his father in 1992, who rode high after the Persian Gulf war but plummeted in the polls as Democrats painted him as out of touch and unconcerned with the plight of Americans.

The elder Mr. Bush said yesterday that his son will not follow in his footsteps.

“The lesson is in 1992, the election was not about the Gulf war … a clear victory,” he said in a CBS convention interview. “The [election] was about the economy. But I’ll guarantee you the president is not going to make the mistake I had,” he said. “He is going to get out the message that the economy is doing pretty darn well.”

But Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, said Mr. Bush’s focus on national security is the right course.

“Democrats call it the politics of fear, I call it the politics of security,” he said. “What he is basically saying to voters is: ‘This is going to be a tough battle ahead. Who do you want to lead it?’ ”

Mr. Morris said it would be absurd for the president to focus more on domestic issues during this election with the threat of terrorism so clear.

“Just think, what would FDR have said in 1944 about health care and the economy and the environment and education?” he said.

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