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Bush Goes on Offense on the Defense Issue


PHILADELPHIA — With the nation at peace and the Cold War but a memory, foreign policy and defense have fallen near the bottom of most voters' concerns.

But George W. Bush's Republicans had a strategy in mind when they devoted a full session of their convention to talking about national security--election strategy, not global strategy.

Pollsters and Republican leaders say the Texas governor, who has occasionally jumbled the names of foreign countries, still needs to convince some voters that he is ready to become the nation's commander in chief.

Tuesday's session of the Republican National Convention, with a parade of war heroes and foreign policy experts marching on stage to endorse Bush, was intended to address that gap.

"It's a checklist that people have in terms of basic competence," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff. "It's still an important dimension to a president, and since Gov. Bush has not had the foreign policy experience his dad had, it's a way of measuring the strength of the bench, of the team."

"Defense isn't a top-tier issue for voters, but it's a credential issue for Bush," agreed Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart.

Reviving a theme that helped Republicans win elections during the Cold War, Bush has accused the Clinton administration and his Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, of neglecting the needs of the armed forces--in effect, of being "soft on defense."

Most voters appear to agree. In a Times Poll released this week, voters said they favored Gore's position on such issues as the economy, Social Security and health care, but on defense they favored Bush by a wide margin, 61% to 24%.

Stronger Military a Big Applause Line

Bush has been surprised by the strong support for his calls for more spending on military pay and weapon research, his chief strategist said.

"Rebuilding the military . . . was thought to be a minor applause line," strategist Karl Rove said. "Instead, it got huge response from people on the campaign trail."

So Bush has made a strong defense one of the five main themes of his campaign. He has made several major speeches on the issue, including a detailed proposal for nuclear weapon reductions, to demonstrate his familiarity with strategic questions. He chose former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney as his running mate.

He turned Tuesday's session of the convention into an old-fashioned celebration of the GOP as the party of unabashed patriotism and martial virtues, with appearances by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam; former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who was wounded in World War II; and retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who led U.S. troops to victory in the Persian Gulf War.

And while most speakers observed Bush's injunction to stay positive, Bush foreign policy aide Condoleezza Rice gave a preview of the themes the candidate plans to use against Gore in the fall campaign.

Bush "recognizes that the magnificent men and women of America's armed forces are not a global police force; they are not the world's 911," she said. ". . . If the time ever comes to use military force, President George W. Bush will do so to win--because for him, victory is not a dirty word."

Rice politely didn't name Gore as her target, but Bush campaign aides were less delicate.

"The American public is not comfortable with Clinton-Gore decisions on military deployments," campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan said. "The public recognizes that our military technology research, morale and readiness have all declined."

Bush has said he would change U.S. defense policy in three ways: by spending an additional $20 billion over five years on military research and development, by seeking $1 billion in new raises in military pay, and by deploying forces overseas less often. In particular, Bush has said he would not have sent U.S. peacekeepers to stop the massacre of more than 400,000 civilians in Rwanda in 1995. President Clinton did not send troops to Rwanda either but later said he wished he had.

Gore's Calls for More Spending Unspecific

Gore has also called for increased spending ("investment in renewed growth," in Gorespeak) in weapons, salaries and readiness. But he has not been as specific as Bush in proposing new spending programs. "Al Gore has always been for a strong defense, ever since his time in Congress," Gore spokesman Douglas Hattaway said. "He has a more realistic and mature vision on international security than Bush. He's laid out a vision for a new security agenda that seeks to address issues . . . before they erupt into conflict."

Bush's proposed spending increases are not large in dollar terms. The House and Senate have approved defense spending plans that total $310 billion for the coming fiscal year, including a 3.7% increase in military pay.

And the differences between the Republican-led Congress and the Democratic administration have not been dramatic. Congress' $310 billion was about $4.5 billion more than President Clinton requested in his budget, a difference of about 1.5%.

"To point a finger at the Clinton administration is kind of problematic," said Steven Kosiak, an analyst at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Kosiak noted that defense spending has increased since 1999 after a decade-long decline under Clinton and his predecessor, Republican President Bush, the father of this year's presumed GOP nominee.

Will the defense issue matter in November? Pollsters Hart and McInturff say no--unless, unexpectedly, the nation is at war.

And Hart questioned whether Tuesday's testimonials from Republican war heroes would have much effect.

Bush "can't establish his credentials through surrogates," Hart said. "He has to be able to show it himself."

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