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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Bush's Emotional Finale

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 3, 2004;

First, the Republicans get the atmospherics right.

President Bush's theater in the round looked great and brought him closer to the audience. Everyone in the Garden crowd seemed to be waving a small American flag, which matched the electronic flag backdrop behind Bush.

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As the president delivered an almost Clintonian laundry list of proposals -- after months of offering few second-term specifics -- some questions popped into my mind.

How's he gonna pay for it?

There was, you might have noticed, no mention of the nearly half-trillion-dollar budget deficit. And Bush called for making his tax cuts permanent. So that doesn't leave him a whole lot of money to play with. More job training, more community college funds, more Pell grants, 7 million more affordable homes -- where does he get the cash? How does he then pivot and call Kerry a big spender?

A "simpler, fairer" tax code -- very Reaganesque. The Gipper pulled it off in 1986. But how exactly does Bush plan to do this? Which "special interest" provisions will he get rid of? Surely not the mortgage tax break, or his new, lower capital gains rate for investment income.

The president's regulatory proposals -- on tort reform and Social Security -- were definitely crowd-pleasers. But these went nowhere in the first term.

Bush said Kerry wants to raise taxes -- but omitted the fact that the proposal is limited to the $200,000-plus crowd. Hey, a speech doesn't have room for everything.

But the president managed to needle his opponent in a good-natured way, rather than giving him Zell. "The protection of marriage against activist judges" -- what an ingenious way to avoid uttering the words "gay" or "constitutional amendment."

At least twice in the Iraq/terrorism portion of the speech, hecklers seemed to be shouting -- how could they get on the floor when I found it impossible without the right color-coded pass? -- but were drowned out by chants of "four more years."

There was also a shot at the New York Times, by way of a 60-year-old article. With Bush 41 also hitting the Times in recent interviews, the paper seems to have risen high on the Bush clan's list of annoyances.

Bush showed a light touch when poking fun at his "swagger," but seemed on the verge of choking up as he talked of comforting the families of the fallen. His eyes were on the verge of welling up. You can't fake that kind of emotion.

He went long, but who's going to cut away from the president at 11?

The insta-reaction? Tom Brokaw noted there was "no mention of WMD." Tim Russert and other pundits called it two speeches. "There's passion and there's a real sense of confidence and inspiration" in the war section, while on domestic matters, Bush's problem is that "there's been negative job growth the last four years."

George Will called the domestic part of the speech "almost pedestrian," but said the finale "moved us" and "moved him."

John Roberts explained the emphasis on terrorism by saying that Bush "polls much better on the war on terror than on the war in Iraq."

"This was the authentic George Bush," said Bill Kristol, even though some conservatives won't be happy with the spending proposals.

Judy Woodruff noted the $450-billion deficit, asking: "Where's that money going to come from?"

Most amazing, in my view, is that while the Garden was filled with a blizzard of confetti and balloons and the Bush and Cheney families gathered on stage, Kerry's as-yet-undelivered criticism from a midnight rally in Ohio was read by some anchors. Kerry is pushing back hard, calling Bush "unfit" and blasting Cheney's draft deferments, and will be on the cable networks just 50 minutes after the president's moment in the spotlight. I've never seen anything like that before, and it underscores how incredibly fast this campaign is moving and how fierce the battle has become.

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