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Banking on the Big Picture

September 03, 2004|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — While looking at the stars, does President Bush risk stumbling into the ditch?

In an often eloquent and at times visionary speech Thursday, Bush pointed his presidency toward the far horizon, pledging to work toward fundamental government reform and a global expansion of liberty that would erode and ultimately eradicate the threat of terrorism.

But by focusing more on long-term changes than immediate responses to challenges in the economy and Iraq, Bush may have left himself vulnerable to Democratic charges that he has offered few new solutions to the problems many voters consider the most pressing.

Indeed, less than an hour after Bush left the podium, his Democratic rival, Sen. John F. Kerry, unveiled a combative new campaign speech that sought to shift the campaign focus away from the incumbent's goals toward his record of the past four years. "It's too late, two months before an election, to come leaping into a convention and make a bunch of promises when you haven't even kept the promises you made before," Kerry said at an unusual midnight rally in Ohio.

Bush's speech culminated a Republican convention notable for its concentrated focus on national security and searing attacks on Kerry, especially in Wednesday night's speeches from Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.).

Bush was less confrontational in tone and more expansive in subject, as he reached beyond national security to affirm broad goals of reforming government and building a society that empowered more Americans to provide for their own retirement and healthcare.

But the president offered relatively few new specifics to flesh out that "ownership" agenda, and he seemed most impassioned when defending his decision to invade Iraq and sketching his vision of how more liberty around the world could mean more security at home.

Earlier in the evening, references to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks dominated the presentations introducing Bush. And one of the night's high points came when the campaign unveiled endorsements from 240 former generals and admirals, including retired Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That was a group 20 times larger than the dozen former generals who endorsed Kerry at July's Democratic convention in Boston.

In all those ways, the final night reinforced the GOP convention's clear signal that the Bush campaign believed its best hope to win another term was by convincing Americans that the president would keep them safe in an age of global terrorism -- and Kerry would not. "The basic dynamic of this race and the focus of the country is going to be on the war on terror," said one senior GOP strategist familiar with White House thinking. "And nothing has deviated from that."

In another respect, though, this week's GOP gathering could mark a turning point in the campaign. After weeks of pounding from Bush and outside groups supporting him that have helped the president regain a narrow lead in several recent polls, the Kerry campaign appears to have concluded that it must now deliver a more assertive case for change.

"We have reached a new phase in the campaign where we are going to draw a sharper contrast," said Joe Lockhart, the former press secretary to President Clinton who recently joined the Kerry camp as a senior communications advisor.

That shift in attitude was immediately apparent when Kerry at his late night rally struck back shortly after Bush's convention speech, not only at the president's agenda, but also in starkly personal terms. "I will not have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and who misled America into Iraq," Kerry said.

Those combative words -- and Bush's jabs at Kerry on taxes, values and national security earlier Thursday night -- point toward a bruising final two months before a narrowly divided country picks its next president.

The speech was a measure of how far Bush has traveled since he sought the presidency in 2000, just six years after winning his first elected office as governor of Texas.

Delivering his acceptance speech in Philadelphia that year he seemed sometimes nervous and glazed. Thursday night, though restrained in his pacing and delivery, he projected the forceful confidence and commitment to his course that had become hallmarks of his presidency, leavened by some effective self-deprecating humor.

"The whole speech underscored his two great strengths: resolve and likability," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank.

On both domestic and foreign policy issues, Bush sought a visionary tone. He presented his domestic agenda as a response to fundamental changes in society and the economy that he argued had rendered obsolete many public and private programs meant to provide security and opportunity.

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