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Tailoring the Message

Wednesday, September 1, 2004; Page A18

ONE OF THE striking aspects of the Democratic convention was the degree to which the positions of the party's candidate diverged from those of the delegates assembled to nominate him, most notably on the war in Iraq. In Boston, those differences were muted in the interest of ousting President Bush. The Republicans in New York this week have their own internecine frictions -- social vs. economic conservatives, global free-traders vs. those of a more isolationist stripe -- and, as in Boston, these have been minimized. But the GOP's divisions aren't between the candidate and his base: The delegates in New York are overwhelmingly of like mind with Mr. Bush about the wisdom of the war in Iraq, his economic agenda and social issues.

The party's fissures manifest themselves elsewhere, and they are likely to become more evident in the aftermath of the election, no matter who wins. Offstage, there is nearly as much talk about the jockeying already underway for 2008 as there is about this year's contest; there is no obvious front-runner for the next campaign, a situation that sets the stage for a battle over the party's future.

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In the meantime, much has been made of the degree to which the party's moderates are dominating the convention program. Indeed, many of the convention's most prominent speakers disagree with some of the most contentious aspects of the party platform adopted Monday, particularly an intolerant plank that opposes not only gay marriage but state recognition of same-sex civil unions. But that disagreement wasn't publicly aired; remarks by such speakers as former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have served not to highlight their differences with the party but to underscore their solidarity with it.

Monday night's lineup, which included Mr. Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain, was designed to remind the country of Mr. Bush's reassuring performance in the days after Sept. 11 (Mr. Giuliani) and connect the war on terrorism with the enterprise in Iraq (Mr. McCain). Mr. McCain offered a powerful argument for going to war in Iraq: that whether or not Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, "freed from international pressure and the threat of military action, he would have acquired them again. . . . We couldn't afford the risk posed by an unconstrained Saddam in these dangerous times." Unlike Mr. McCain, Mr. Giuliani took on Sen. John F. Kerry directly. "President Bush sees world terrorism for the evil that it is," he said. "John Kerry has no such clear, precise and consistent vision." Polls suggest that many Americans have similar apprehensions about Mr. Kerry; the Democratic nominee has fallen short in addressing their concerns.

Last night's program, with speeches by Mr. Schwarzenegger and first lady Laura Bush, was an effort to revive the public image of Mr. Bush as a compassionate conservative. Mr. Schwarzenegger, addressing "my fellow immigrants," spoke of the United States as a country in which "it doesn't make any difference where you were born." Viewers wouldn't have known from those remarks that the platform writers had to beat back an effort from the party's conservative wing to adopt anti-immigrant language as official GOP policy. And that's just the way Mr. Bush and those running his convention wanted it.

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