NEW YORK -- It demonstrates how much confidence Karl Rove has in his candidate that he left so much of the necessary work of the Republican National Convention to be accomplished by President Bush's acceptance speech on the final night in Madison Square Garden.
The confidence was not misplaced. Bush did almost everything he could on Thursday night, with a major assist from speechwriters Michael Gerson and Karen Hughes, who can write circles around their counterparts in John Kerry's campaign.
This was not an easy assignment. On the first three nights of the convention, the major speakers had sliced and diced Democratic nominee John Kerry but otherwise had been stuck on a single note: the threat of terrorism. No one had addressed the other big public concern, the economy and jobs, which happens to be Bush's biggest vulnerability.
No one had begun to sketch what a second Bush term might bring in any area of domestic policy. And no one had figured out how to respond to the Democrats' charge that Bush had blundered into Iraq on false premises and had no plausible plan to get out.
Given his shaky ratings on both Iraq and the economy, Bush could not afford to be morning-talk-show cheerful, but he had to demonstrate confidence in what the next four years might bring.
By the end of an hour, he had done almost all those things to greater or lesser degree, while getting in a few above-the-belt shots at his opponent and reminding voters why they were drawn to him when they were first getting to know him -- his parents, his foibles and his lack of self-importance.
The weakest link in Bush's speech was his bland assurance that the economy has recovered well enough to provide more and better jobs. But Friday morning's announcement of much better job statistics did what Bush himself could not do.
As the week unfolded, the need for the president to outline a domestic agenda became more and more evident; all the previous speakers steered away from that topic. So the first half of Bush's speech sounded like a State of the Union recital of initiatives in education, health care, job training, tort reform, etc. As in a State of the Union, the speech paragraphs and backup briefing book were skimpy enough on details to make it nearly certain that unsuspecting viewers came away with an exaggerated notion of Bush's plans. He probably doesn't have the budget -- or the votes -- to do more than gesture in the direction of such far-reaching reforms, but at least he has answered those who say his cupboard of policy ideas has run bare.
After a brief recitation of the traditional values important to his conservative base, Bush turned to the topic of Iraq, about which the public has been growing restive. In an assessment that seems notably more optimistic than current news justifies, Bush suggested that by staying the course we could at some point leave Iraq and its security problems to a democratically chosen Iraqi government. That is a hopeful scenario of dubious probability, but it is no more implausible than Kerry's alternative of recruiting other countries to come in and help police the country. Both men have muddled records on Iraq, and neither has offered a sure-fire fix for the challenges posed by Iran, North Korea or other rogue states.
So it was back to terrorism for Bush and a touching evocation of the emotions of Sept. 11, the only time when he really was the president of all the people. It is, in my view, pointless for Democrats to argue that Bush's actions after that tragedy were no different from what Al Gore or anyone else would have done. The fact is that Bush was the one who rallied the country in those first critical days, and he benefits from the bonds then established.
The words he speaks on that subject come from Gerson and Hughes, but the emotion is his own, and its authenticity lifts even a partisan political speech such as this one into another and higher realm.
When I was discussing Kerry and the controversy over his Vietnam service Aug. 24, I foolishly wrote that the "the boomers are now in their sixties." Thanks to many of you, I have been reminded that the first of the boomers, as usually defined, were born in 1946, making them 58 at most. Math was never my strong suit.