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The Republican Convention

Schwarzenegger Wraps His Life Story Around GOP Themes

September 01, 2004|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The Republican National Convention turned on Tuesday from accenting strength to emphasizing opportunity and compassion, as Arnold Schwarzenegger presented his improbable life story -- the rise from immigrant bodybuilder to movie star to California governor -- as an embodiment of the GOP and its ideals.

In an evening featuring a parade of minority speakers, as well as First Lady Laura Bush, it was the Austrian-born Schwarzenegger who offered one of the most crowd-pleasing testimonials to President Bush.

Borrowing the laconic tagline of the Terminator, perhaps his most famous cinematic character, Schwarzenegger declared: "America is back."

"Back from the attack on our homeland, back from the attack on our economy, and back from the attack on our way of life," Schwarzenegger said, standing before the image of a giant, billowing American flag.

"We are back because of the perseverance, character and leadership of the 43rd president of the United States, George W. Bush."

The two men have not had the closest political relationship. Schwarzenegger has criticized Bush as not paying enough attention to Democratic-leaning California and has kept a studied distance from his reelection effort.

But that was not easy to tell Tuesday night as Schwarzenegger, making his national political debut, warmly praised the president. The closest he came to acknowledging their difference on touchy issues such as legalized abortion and gay rights -- both of which the governor supports -- was a passage observing that not everyone in the party agrees on everything.

"I believe that's not only OK, that's what's great about this country," Schwarzenegger said. "Here we can respectfully disagree and still be patriotic, still be American and still be good Republicans."

Schwarzenegger's remarks offered more sweep than substance and little partisan bite for such a setting. In a 23-minute speech, he mentioned America 47 times, used the word Republican 15 times and referred to Bush by name six times.

He never directly criticized Sen. John F. Kerry, a personal friend and the Democratic presidential nominee. But he took a few humorous jabs.

"To those critics who are so pessimistic about our economy, I say: Don't be economic girlie men," Schwarzenegger quipped, drawing a roar with a line from a "Saturday Night Live" spoof that he directed against Democratic state legislators last month.

Laura Bush, who followed Schwarzenegger on the bill, sought to humanize her husband with a peek behind the curtains as he weighed going to war against Iraq.

Recalling "some very quiet nights at the dinner table" and tense times at the White House, Camp David and the couple's Crawford, Texas, ranch, the first lady sought to refute the Democratic portrayal of a president eager to invade.

"No American president ever wants to go to war," she said. "And my husband didn't want to go to war. But he knew the safety and security of America and the world depended on it."

She took up the same role -- helpmate and character witness -- that her counterpart, Teresa Heinz Kerry, played at the Democratic convention last month in Boston. Laura Bush did so, however, in far more self-effacing fashion, reflecting the more traditional and reticent role she has taken toward her husband's reelection campaign.

In contrast to Heinz Kerry, who talked at length about her biography and views on empowering women, the first lady devoted almost her entire remarks to the president and his policies, including a defense of his decision to limit federal funding of stem cell research.

While critics said that had hampered the potential for medical breakthroughs, Laura Bush said her husband was the first president to provide such funding, which is controversial because the research involves destruction of human embryos.

"He did so in a principled way," she said, "allowing science to explore its potential while respecting the dignity of human life."

The first lady was introduced by the Bushes' daughters, Jenna and Barbara, and the president, who spoke via satellite hook-up from a softball diamond in south-central Pennsylvania. As it happened, it was the Pennsylvania delegation that put Bush over the top during the nomination roll call Tuesday night, though his formal nomination will take place today.

Earlier Tuesday, campaigning in Nashville, Tenn., Bush sought to douse a controversy he created the day before by telling a veterans group he believed the war on terrorism was winnable. In an interview broadcast Monday on NBC, he expressed doubt that it was winnable.

"In this different kind of war, we may never sit down at a peace table. But make no mistake about it, we are winning and we will win," the president told more than 6,000 delegates to the American Legion Convention.

Bush arrives in New York today and plans to meet with a group of firefighters and supporters in Queens. Vice President Dick Cheney will address delegates tonight.

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