Monday, August 30, 2004

NEW YORK — Former President Bill Clinton rallied a church congregation in Harlem yesterday, and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, blanketed the Sunday political talk shows, reminding Republicans as they begin their convention that New York is not Republican territory.

Mr. Clinton took time out of the European leg of his worldwide book tour to return to the United States to speak at Riverside Church, where he quoted Scripture from the pulpit in dissecting President Bush’s faith.

“I believe President Bush is a good Christian. I believe that his faith in Jesus saved him. I believe it gave him new purpose and direction to his life,” Mr. Clinton said from the pulpit of Riverside Church. “But that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t see through a glass darkly.

“It doesn’t mean that you can have a bunch of people acting on your behalf, and pretending like you don’t know them, to say that the seven people who were on John Kerry’s Swift Boat don’t know what they’re talking about when they say he deserves the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts,” the former president said, wading into the controversy over Mr. Kerry’s war record, spawned by the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Mrs. Clinton, one of New York’s two Democratic senators, appeared on three different political shows and also tied the president to the ads — something both the Swift Boat group and the president deny.

She also predicted that Republicans will put forth a false face during their convention.

“They’re trying to present one view and one face on the party to the people, and they’re trying to keep the focus on those who frankly have no influence in Washington, with all due respect,” she said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Mrs. Clinton did not identify anyone by name, but the convention is highlighting centrist and liberal Republican lawmakers, such as New York Gov. George E. Pataki and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

“They’re not running the House — [Majority Leader and Texas Republican] Tom DeLay is. They’re not running the Senate — the Republican Senate caucus, largely driven by the most extreme members, are unfortunately calling the shots, and the White House is,” she said.

Democrats said Mr. Clinton’s appearance was not part of the official party response to the Republican convention, but Mrs. Clinton’s appearances were.

Under the headline “Mission not accomplished” — a jab at the sign behind Mr. Bush when he declared major combat operations complete in Iraq 16 months ago from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln — Democrats will spend this week poking holes in Republican boasts of success in the past four years and generally trying to get a piece of the story.

“The measure of success is we are getting our message out,” said Matt Bennett, spokesman for the Democrats’ Response Team operation.

“Obviously, this week, the Republicans will dominate the political message. But we want to make two things certain: One, that George Bush has not accomplished his mission for America, and two, what the American people will hear from the stage in Madison Square Garden is a facade — totally out of step with the candidate,” he said.

Democrats also said they will not be shy about arguing that Republicans are using New York for political purposes by holding their convention so close to the third anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“It’s important to note — the only reason Republicans are in New York is to exploit 9/11,” Mr. Bennett said. “Let’s face it: Why else would they be here?”

But Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said the September 11 attacks are a legitimate campaign issue because voters should know how the candidates see the world after the attacks.

Noting that the Democrats made more than 100 references to September 11 during their convention in Boston, he said the Republican event held just blocks from the destroyed World Trade Center could not be expected to ignore the issue.

“Having a political discussion without discussing September 11 would be like a political discussion in 1864 that doesn’t take into account the Civil War,” Mr. Gillespie said.

New York is overwhelmingly Democratic, although it has voted Republican in the past three mayoral elections. The state as a whole also leans Democratic, though Mr. Pataki has held office since 1995.

Democrats are countering the convention with an 86-person operation occupying a suite of rooms on the 15th floor of a building overlooking Seventh Avenue, a few blocks from Madison Square Garden, and with a clear view of yesterday’s protest march.

The operation is in charge of booking guests for talk-radio programs, e-mailing and phoning responses to reporters covering the convention and holding a daily pre-briefing to try to predict and answer Republicans’ theme for that night.

The daily responses will be led by Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack.

One special focus will be Sen. Zell Miller, the Georgia Democrat who will deliver the keynote address to the convention.

Democrats have pointed out that Mr. Miller just three years ago called Mr. Kerry a war hero.

Then yesterday, Mr. Miller told Fox News he couldn’t think of a single area on which he disagreed with the Republican Party, to which the Democratic Response Team said that Mr. Miller’s “donkey costume, worn very thin in recent weeks, ripped wide open, exposing the elephant lurking beneath.”

• James G. Lakely contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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