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Bush Takes Stage Tonight to Deliver Speech of His Life

Strategy: For many Americans, it's their first glimpse at the Republican hopeful. But aides promise something new for those who've heard him before.


PHILADELPHIA — Every action in the past year--every handshake, every airport rally, every bus trip, every pancake breakfast--has been building to this moment, when George W. Bush steps on stage here tonight, locks eyes on the TelePrompTer and begins to speak.

The Texas governor has described himself as "not nervous but . . . anxious" about the speech he will give when he accepts the Republican nomination for president. Truth be told, he has the right to feel both.

The prime-time address is the biggest of his life, the most important of his career, the most crucial in his run for the White House. He has never faced as massive an audience or as large a test.

Bush--who is more emphatic than eloquent, more natural in a small room than on a national broadcast--must persuade American voters in about an hour that he has what it takes to be president. He must prove to loyal supporters that his cause is worth the work ahead. He must dispel doubts and engage hearts. He must do it in about 3,900 words.

"This is going to be the first time that a lot of people take a good, hard look at him," said John Murphy, associate professor of speech communication at the University of Georgia. The campaign is "narrowed to two men. One of these two guys is going to be president. People tend to measure the [acceptance] speech differently because they know that."

Speech Will Plow New Ground

Although Bush has spoken thousands of times while crisscrossing the country campaigning for president, he has basically given one address. Nearly every talk delivered to date has its roots in a speech he gave 14 months ago, when he announced in Iowa that he wanted to lead the nation.

Tonight's speech must plow new rhetorical ground and will likely lay out his battle plan for the next three months as he goes head-to-head with Democratic rival Al Gore. It is the bridge to the general election.

"You're going to see a summary of the party's principles and approach in this election," Karl Rove, the campaign's chief strategist, said Wednesday. "And I would not be surprised and shocked to see him deal with" several specific issues that so far have received little attention from convention speakers.

As such, Bush's speech likely will signal to viewers what the "major themes of attack on the Democrats will be," said Bruce Cain, director of the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies. "Where is taxes going to be, at the top of [the agenda]? Or will it be something else? Character? Campaign finance?"

Bush advisors describe the speech as a paean to leadership, some 50 minutes (with applause) of reaching out to moderates and independent voters, a positive and uplifting interlude that also will contrast the governor's vision with what he sees as the shortcomings of the Clinton administration.

While Bush insists that he despises "the politics of personal destruction," he will not be above a little feint and jab at both President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee.

Bush "will needle his opponents a little, but he will treat them with respect," said Karen Hughes, his communications director.

Bush says he wants to tell voters why he is the right man to lead the nation at this moment in U.S. history. But while he has spent recent weeks dropping hints about the speech-writing process, he has been miserly with details about its content.

"I thought I would start off with 'I accept your nomination,' " he quipped recently. "It might not be very original, but it seems to get a good applause."

The daunting task ahead of Bush tonight--a job that began in May with the first brainstorm session on the speech--is to sound at once presidential and natural, lofty but not at odds with his Texas twang.

Michael Gerson, the candidate's lead speech writer, describes Bush the orator as "not anti-eloquent, but he likes directness to his language, and that's a tremendous part of his appeal." As a result, Gerson said, Bush has "spent a lot of time making [this address] his own."

In fact, while Gerson has penned the bulk of Bush's most memorable lines, the candidate performs best when he has had the most input into his speeches. Which is why Bush has lived with this one for weeks.

He has bluelined the rough patches, reworked structure and flow, called Gerson at odd hours with suggestions. He has rehearsed it top to bottom five times--with and without a TelePrompTer, at home and on the campaign trail--fiddling until the end.

Gerson promises that tonight's address "is a completely new speech," which is a good thing, according to political analysts and communication experts who argue that the Texas governor cannot drive the next three months on rhetorical retread.

Moving Beyond the Little Black Dress

"He needs a new set of scripts," Cain said. "He's got to sustain some enthusiasm and interest if he wants to get the press coverage, or people will spend more time on what Gore says about him."

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