NEW YORK, Aug. 29 -- Vice President Cheney launched the Republican convention Sunday in a speech hailing President Bush's war leadership, as more than 200,000 demonstrators took to the streets here in protest of the Bush administration's policies.
With the terrorist-marred New York skyline as his backdrop, Cheney stood on Ellis Island to give the informal kickoff to Bush's nominating convention. "All of us are gathering this week for one reason and one reason only, and that is to make certain that George W. Bush is president for the next four years," Cheney said in a speech largely devoted to Bush's response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Across New York harbor in Manhattan, demonstrators marched past Madison Square Garden, this week's convention site, carrying mock flag-draped coffins and signs condemning the Iraq war. Delegates arriving for the GOP's quadrennial celebration found a city under tense security, with thousands of heavily armed police guarding river crossings, closing streets and snarling traffic on a usually quiet summer Sunday.
Republican praise of Bush as war leader -- emphasized by symbolic reminders of Bush's actions after the attacks -- will be a dominant theme this week, as Bush accepts his party's nomination for a second term in the city where the twin towers once stood. Republican officials said Sunday that they plan to make Sept. 11 a focus of the week in a convention that is also intended to soften some of the party's ideological edges and broaden Bush's appeal to the political middle.
"How you approach the world after September 11th is a factor in this election," Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said at a lunch with reporters Sunday. Noting that Democrats at their convention last month also spoke about the attacks, Gillespie said ignoring them would be like "a convention in 1864 that didn't take into account the Civil War."
He defended the decision to choose featured speakers who are party moderates with policies often at odds with Bush: Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Although playing down expectations that Bush will receive a significant boost from the convention, Gillespie said the party has been heartened by polls showing gains for Bush in a race that remains statistically deadlocked. "I think we are in better shape going into the convention than we thought we'd be," he said.
Democrats derided the convention as phony. "They're going to run a kind of Potemkin convention, where they will have people on the stage who don't run the Congress, don't run the administration, but are going to be putting the kinder and gentler, compassionate-conservative look on this administration," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) said Sunday on ABC News's "This Week." "The show that the Republicans will put on is not going to fool the American people this time."
Advance excerpts of McCain's and Giuliani's speeches released Sunday by the Bush campaign indicate both men will concentrate on Sept. 11. "No American alive today will ever forget what happened on the morning of September 11th," McCain is to declare, saying Bush "has not flinched from the hard choices."
Giuliani, according to the Bush campaign, will liken Bush to Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan and say: "In times of danger, as we are now in, Americans should put leadership at the core of their decision."
The GOP convention begins just 64 days before the election, and presents Bush with his best chance to dispel doubts about the war in Iraq and slow job growth at home, which have combined to put the president in unexpected difficulty. He acknowledged his electoral focus in an interview with Time published Sunday. Asked whether the war on terrorism would be decades-long, Bush quipped, "I'm a two-month man right now."
Bush also acknowledged in the interview that the administration did not anticipate the nature of the resistance in Iraq, and he said that was his greatest mistake in office. "Had we had to do it over again," he said, "we would look at the consequences of catastrophic success, being so successful so fast that an enemy that should have surrendered or been done in escaped and lived to fight another day."
Democrats tried Sunday to exploit that acknowledgment. "The president is now describing his Iraq policy as a catastrophic success," Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards said in Washington. "I, like most Americans, have no idea what that means, but it is long past time for this president to accept personal responsibility for his failures and for his performance." Edwards said the Iraq war "has clearly been a failure."
Even as attention turned to the Republican convention, the two campaigns continued to skirmish as they have over the past two weeks about attacks on the Vietnam War record of Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry. Bush made a conciliatory gesture toward his rival in an interview with NBC News. "I think his service is heroic," Bush said. Asked whether his service in the National Guard was as heroic as Kerry's, Bush replied: "No, I don't. I think him going to Vietnam was more heroic than my flying fighter jets. I mean, he was in harm's way and I wasn't."
Yet first lady Laura Bush, who typically avoids such issues, defended the group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, that has run ads questioning Kerry's decorations and antiwar activism. Asked whether the ads are unfair, Laura Bush told Time: "Not really. There have been millions of terrible ads against my husband."
Bush was campaigning in West Virginia on Sunday and is not scheduled to arrive in New York until Wednesday night. But here in the New York area, Cheney outlined the convention's opening theme with a seven-minute tribute to Bush's response to the terrorist attacks of 2001.
Speaking of his generation's duty to keep alive the American dream, Cheney said: "That effort has to begin with keeping our nation safe, and a sure reminder of that is the skyline of this great city, which was altered so violently on September 11, 2001."
With a crowd chanting, "Four More Years!" and "USA!" Cheney recalled Bush's visit to New York three days after the attacks. He said: "People in every part of the country, regardless of party, took great comfort and pride in the conduct and the character of our president. They saw a man calm in a crisis, comfortable with responsibility, and determined to do everything necessary to protect our people."
If Cheney and his party are determined to recall the unity behind Bush in late 2001, anti-Bush demonstrators here are determined to remind Americans of the subsequent division, particularly over the Iraq war. In largely peaceful protests, the demonstrators marched along New York's Seventh Avenue, many carrying antiwar signs with messages such as "Bush Lies, Who Dies?" More than 350 demonstrators have been arrested since last week as law enforcement agencies attempt to deter terrorism and street violence with a huge show of force.
New York Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, said he is confident that security in New York is under control and attendees will be safe. "In a word, yes, I'm very confident," he said on ABC News.
Staff writers Dan Balz in New York and Vanessa Williams in Washington contributed to this report.