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THE REPUBLICAN CONVENTION | George Skelton / CAPITOL
JOURNAL

The Right Words, and California Could Be GOP Player

September 02, 2004|George Skelton

New York — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says, "If you believe we must be fierce and relentless and terminate terrorism, then you are a Republican."

Does it follow, then, that Democrats do not want to terminate terrorism?

"It's outrageous, because we know the troops are bipartisan," says California Democratic spokesman Bob Mulholland, a Vietnam combat veteran who earned a Purple Heart and still carries shrapnel.

Mulholland, whom many Republican officials think of as outrageous himself, wrangled a GOP convention floor pass for Schwarzenegger's nationally televised speech Tuesday night.

It was the political oration of Schwarzenegger's life and the delivery was near perfect, a showstopper. An immigrant's testimonial to American opportunity. But the tone sometimes seemed a tad partisan for a guy who keeps insisting he wants to govern in a bipartisan manner.

There also was another remark that some -- especially the unemployed -- may have considered outrageous. It was the governor's biggest crowd-pleaser: "To those critics who are so pessimistic about our economy, I say, Don't be economic girlie men!"

Since President Bush took office, according to Democrats, 1.8 million Americans have lost their jobs. According to the Schwarzenegger administration, 17,300 Californians lost their jobs in July alone.

Suppose any of these laid-off workers are critical of the economy? Does that make them girlie men? They probably don't see the humor that Schwarzenegger does.

But back to terminating terrorism: Many people, including Democrats, want to relentlessly pursue terrorists. They're just not convinced that's the same as waging war in Iraq. Bush still needs to connect the dots, starting tonight in his nomination acceptance speech.

Schwarzenegger, heaping praise on the president like never before, lauded him as an unflinching, unwavering leader who "didn't go into Iraq because the polls told him it was popular. As a matter of fact, the polls said just the opposite."

"Incorrect," says Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll. Newport recalls that two Gallup/CNN/USA Today surveys leading up to the invasion showed nearly two-thirds of Americans favoring the attack.

Support for the war has fallen as troop casualties have risen. There's a good illustration of that in California.

At the state Capitol, Schwarzenegger issues a statement honoring the heroism and ultimate sacrifice of each Californian killed in Iraq. At last count, the number was up to about 170.

Correspondingly, Californians have increasingly soured on Bush's handling of Iraq, based on polling by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. Disapproval has leaped from 39% in September 2002 -- six months before the war -- to 63% last month. Similarly, disapproval of the president's anti-terrorist efforts has risen from only 13% soon after 9/11 to 49% currently.

And 61% of Californians have concluded the war wasn't worth it, the PPIC found.

Combine those attitudes with the disagreements many Californians have with Bush on other matters -- the environment, abortion, gun control -- and it's easy to understand why he was trailing Sen. John F. Kerry last month by 16 points in the state, according to the PPIC poll.

California has been considered "out of play" in the presidential race. But some Bush backers at the convention insist an upset is possible. Bush California chairman Gerry Parsky, a wealthy L.A. investor, says private polls show the president closing to within single digits of Kerry. That's conceivable given Bush's rise in nationwide surveys.

Parsky and other Republicans are spinning reporters that Kerry is a political twin of ousted Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. "Kerry is just another shade of gray," says U.S. Senate candidate Bill Jones.

"John Kerry offers [fiscal] policies that parallel Gray Davis," asserts Parsky. At first, he said the California Bush campaign probably would run TV ads twinning Kerry and Davis, then backed off the comment.

One problem for Bush is that California Republican activists lack the fire of Democrats, at least based on their national conventions.

In Boston, Democratic delegates were spirited and their dislike of Bush was visceral. They clearly were hungry to recapture the White House. In New York, at their sparsely attended morning breakfast meetings, Republican delegates seem lethargic, complacent with their new governor and the party's dominance of Congress.

Indeed, their most rousing speaker at a Tuesday delegation meeting was former Gov. Pete Wilson, never known for stem-winding oratory. He did heat up the small audience with repeated comments about terrorists such as this: "No, we can't just all get along. We've got to go kick the hell out of them.

"And this is the president who will do it."

This is the president's night to convince Iraq skeptics -- and to see if it's possible, just maybe, to put California in play, forcing Kerry to divert millions to the state that he really needs to spend on other battlegrounds.

Convention speeches can have a huge impact -- conventions do matter -- as we learned in Boston.

Kerry made the strategic error of over-emphasizing his Vietnam War heroism. For one, Americans prefer humble heroes. More important, the Democratic candidate handed Republicans a rationale for inserting disputes over his war record into the campaign dialogue, where it blocked out the issues he needed to discuss.

Bush has a unique national forum to convince voters he has both an Iraq exit strategy and a plan for eradicating terrorists. Two separate things.

"He needs to make a compelling case for the strength of his convictions and the correctness of his policy," says veteran political strategist Ken Khachigian of San Clemente. "If Bush can create enough momentum to put California in play, then the Terminator will get in -- if he thought he could make a difference -- and he'd bust his biceps."

The Terminator first should bust his line that implies Democrats and independents coddle terrorists.

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