NEW YORK, Aug. 30 -- Led by former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain, Republicans opened their national convention here Monday night with an invocation of President Bush's leadership after the terrorist attacks, a powerful defense of his decision to invade Iraq, and sharp criticism of Democrat John F. Kerry as an indecisive and unreliable leader.
Meeting less than three miles from Ground Zero, where terrorists destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the Republicans used their opening-night program to recall the powerful mix of emotions that galvanized the nation in the hours and days after the attacks. The speakers portrayed Bush as steady and unwavering, a president who, in Giuliani's words, would have the United States "lead, rather than follow" in the global war to defeat terrorists.
The theme of Monday evening's session was the "courage of a nation," and it featured tributes to Medal of Honor winners and a salute to armed forces personnel. But the thread that tied it together was Sept. 11, and near the end of the evening, three relatives of victims of the attacks offered moving reminiscences of those who were killed. They were followed by a poignant rendition of "Amazing Grace."
As Bush campaigned his way toward New York, the first Republican national political convention in the city's history bore all the earmarks of how those attacks have transformed the country. There was an unprecedented show of police force on the streets, and the area around Madison Square Garden was heavily fortified with barriers and checkpoints -- to guard against possible terrorism and to keep at bay the protests that formed part of the backdrop for the week's official events.
Ever since the Republicans selected New York as their convention site, Democrats have challenged them not to exploit the tragedies of Sept. 11 for political gain. Republicans have said that they were not exploiting the attacks, but that the events of that day changed the nation and Bush's presidency, and it would be irresponsible not to talk about them.
Giuliani, who guided New York through the chaos of Sept. 11, invoked his own memories of that searing experience, including the sight of a man jumping out of one of the top floors of the burning World Trade Center, to praise Bush as a "rock solid" president no matter how much he is demonized by critics or the media. "Some call it stubbornness," Giuliani said of Bush's leadership. "I call it principled leadership. President Bush has the courage of his convictions."
McCain, Bush's rival from the 2000 primaries, has become one of his staunchest allies in the reelection campaign. He praised Bush's decision to depose former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, saying the war was "necessary, achievable and noble," even though no weapons of mass destruction have been found, because Hussein was determined to acquire them eventually.
"Our choice wasn't between a benign status quo and the bloodshed of war," he said. "It was between war and a graver threat. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Not our political opponents. And certainly not a disingenuous filmmaker who would have us believe that Saddam's Iraq was an oasis of peace when in fact it was a place of indescribable cruelty, torture chambers, mass graves and prisons that destroyed the lives of the small children held inside their walls."
McCain was referring to filmmaker Michael Moore, whose anti-Bush polemic "Fahrenheit 9/11" has earned tens of millions of dollars since its release earlier in the summer and who has been toasted by Democrats for helping to energize opposition to the president. When McCain referred to Moore, who was in the hall at the time, the delegates interrupted the speech, first with boos and jeers and then chants of "Four more years." A smiling McCain quipped, "That line was so good, I'll use it again" as he went on to complete the quotation.
Giuliani also painted an unflattering portrait of Kerry as a politician with no clear or consistent vision, saying Kerry "has made it the rule to change his position, rather than the exception."
Recounting Kerry's opposition to the resolution authorizing the Persian Gulf War in 1991, his 2002 vote authorizing Bush to invade Iraq and his later vote against an $87 billion authorization for military and reconstruction spending in Iraq and Afghanistan, Giuliani brought a roar of laughter from the convention floor when he said, "Maybe this explains John Edwards's need for two Americas -- one is where John Kerry can vote for something and another where he can vote against exactly the same thing."
As Republicans opened their convention, Bush stirred up fresh criticism of his leadership when he said in an interview on NBC's "Today" show that he doubted that the United States could actually win the war against terrorism. "I don't think you can win it," he said. "But I think you can create the conditions that those who used terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world."
Bush's comment drew a swift reply from the Kerry campaign, with Edwards, the vice presidential candidate, accusing Bush of declaring defeat, saying the Democrats have a plan to win that war. White House officials moved just as quickly to explain that the president meant that the war on terrorism is unconventional and will produce no surrender ceremonies or treaties and that the United States must be prepared for a generation of vigilance.
The GOP convention opened a day after a huge group of protesters had snaked through the streets of Manhattan denouncing Bush's leadership and the war in Iraq. But the city was relatively quiet as delegates arrived for the first session of the day Monday morning.
The delegates quickly ratified the party's conservative platform, which devoted considerable space to the war on terrorism and Bush's leadership, reaffirmed the party's opposition to abortion and ratified Bush's call for a constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage.
The platform provided sustenance to party conservatives, whose energy and support in November remain crucial to Bush's prospects for reelection. But the prime-time lineup the first two nights, which also includes California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, put the spotlight on prominent Republicans who disagree with Bush and the conservatives on many social issues.
Their role in the carefully orchestrated convention program underscored the importance of reaching beyond the conservative base to undecided and swing voters.
Bush's advisers believe that those voters, many of whom disapprove of the GOP's conservatism on social issues, can be wooed and won by highlighting the president's leadership on terrorism and contrasting him with Kerry.
McCain and Giuliani brought unique credentials to that task Monday night. McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, commands respect across the political spectrum. He has freely criticized the president on domestic and foreign policy, but has been solid in support of Bush on terrorism and Iraq.
Giuliani broke with his party in 1994 and endorsed then-Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo over George E. Pataki. Giuliani earned universal praise for his calm and steady leadership on Sept. 11, and in the weeks after as New York grappled with the devastation.
The two argued that the terrorism aimed at New York and the Pentagon forced the country to confront the reality of terrorist activities and provided an unavoidable test for this generation of Americans. "There is no avoiding this war," McCain said. "We tried that and our reluctance cost us dearly."
McCain said Bush and Vice President Cheney deserve a second term because of the resolve they showed not only after Sept. 11, when the world supported trying to destroy the al Qaeda terrorist network by invading Afghanistan, but also when much of the world opposed the invasion of Iraq.
"We need a leader with the experience to make the tough decisions and the resolve to stick with them, a leader who will keep us moving forward even if it is easier to rest," McCain told the delegates at Madison Square Garden. Later he said of Bush, "He has been tested and has risen to the most important challenge of our time, and I salute him. . . . He has not wavered. He has not flinched from the hard choices. He will not yield and neither will we."
McCain, who calls Kerry a friend, did not mention the Democratic nominee by name and urged Republicans to see Democrats not as enemies "but comrades in a war against a real enemy."
But Giuliani repeatedly criticized Kerry in his speech, saying the senator from Massachusetts had shifted positions repeatedly on critical foreign policy issues. "I respect him for his service to our nation," Giuliani said. "But it is important to see the contrast in approach between the two men: President Bush, a leader who is willing to stick with difficult decisions even as public opinion shifts and goes back and forth, and John Kerry, whose record in elected office suggests a man who changes his position often even on important issues."
He called Bush a president who will aggressively attack terrorists at the source and thereby reduce the risk of terrorism at home. "John Kerry's record of inconsistent positions on combating terrorism gives us no confidence that he'll pursue such a determined difficult course," he said.
Giuliani was preceded by Deena Burnett, whose husband, Thomas E. Burnett Jr., was aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania after the passengers thwarted the hijackers; Debra Burlingame, whose brother Charles Burlingame III served as captain of American Airlines 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, and Tara Stackpole, whose husband, Timmy, a firefighter, was killed at the World Trade Center.
Burlingame said when she saw the gigantic American flag hanging from the crash site at the Pentagon a few days later, "my heart fell into a million pieces and it brought back the sweet memory of my brother as a 9-year-old Cub Scout selling American flags door to door."
With the major broadcast networks providing limited coverage, convention organizers staged the evening as their own TV show, complete with roving reporters who were interspersed with the main speeches and who interviewed upbeat delegates who praised the president and hailed the service of U.S. troops abroad.
Following a system first used four years ago, the Republicans began the process Monday of nominating Bush and Cheney for a second term, beginning a roll call of the states that will continue through the week until all states have been recorded.
Researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.